Matchday. The excitement builds. You head to the ground together with your friends, having a laugh together, having a good time. Then the game itself brings its usual emotional highs and lows.
And then, at some point, it’s all over. You’re alone again. Just you and your demons.
This is the routine many football fans who suffer from depression, or other mental health diseases, face on a weekly basis. Jon, a 36-year-old fan of a Bundesliga club, is one of them.
“I would feel more down the days after the game, mostly due to the extreme highs and lows,” he says. After games, Jon would just go straight to bed.
He tells of how dealing with anxiety and depression have affected his match days, including not going into fully crowded away ends or buses.
“The most significant reason I was able to continue going to games was the people around me, who knew about my situation and supported me.”
Depression ever more present in Germany
According to German health ministry estimates, up to 20 percent of the population is expected to experience depression, be it as a phase or as a chronic disease, at least once during their lives.
This means that statistically, out of the 83,000 fans who attend a Borussia Dortmund home game in the Bundesliga, depression is likely to affect some 25,000 of them.
In Germany, where organized football fans and ultra groups are known for their political and social involvement, several initiatives have been launched in recent years in an attempt to raise awareness of the disease and of ways of dealing with it.
By fans, for fans
One of the first was Sankt Depri, an initiative by and for FC St. Pauli fans, meant to raise awareness of the disease among the club’s supporters and aide those affected in getting help.
The initiative was founded in 2014 after Michel, a fan of the Hamburg side, lost his battle with depression and committed suicide.
Tina is a member of St. Depri. In a conversation with DW, she recalls the evening on which the initiative was founded. “At first, it was all about coping with the loss,” she says. “Out of this situation, we said we have to do something about it.”
As Tina herself had spoken openly about struggling with her mental health before, she joined the team which, as of 2023, includes some fifteen members.
Together, they organize an informative meeting once a month. They also offer help to supporters struggling with mental health issues through a wide range of offers: From arranging initial conversations with therapists, to getting their errands done; from offering sports courses free of charge, to having conversations with family and friends of those affected.
From the beginning, Tina says her team enjoyed the full support of the FC St. Pauli ecosystem, including fellow fans, the club’s fan groups and, eventually, some of its sponsors.
She reveals, for instance, how the club allowed them to advertise their contact number inside the Millerntor Stadium’s toilets, thus giving up on wall space which could have been sold to a sponsor.
“The whole St. Pauli cosmos stood behind us,” she says.
Karlsruhe ultras become active
Just like the members of Sankt Depri, fans of fellow second-division club Karlsruher SC were also hit by the reality of a friend losing his battle with depression six years ago. Kevin was 26 years old.
His friend Moritz is a member of KSC ultra group Armata Fidelis. He says he was particularly affected by the loss of Kevin.
“I had no personal contact with people with depression, I thought it’s something you would notice,” he recalls.
Maxi, another Armata Fidelis member, says the group felt they had to become active. They started by collecting donations for a local organization which raises awareness of mental health issues and organized an evening where professionals spoke about depression and its diagnosis. The resonance caught the group by surprise.
“It was incredible to see how many people approached us and started talking to us, people who are partly affected themselves or friends of people affected,” Maxi says.
Karlsruhe’s ultras have since spent the past six years establishing connections with mental health groups, including the Robert Enke Stiftung, and both Moritz and Maxi agree that perceptions have changed significantly.
If someone says they have a bad day or that they need time off from football because they’re unwell, they’ll be understood and offered help, the two say. “The way we treat the topic has changed by 180 degrees.”
Hope Ahead for Werder Bremen fans
Back in northern Germany, efforts to raise awareness of mental health issues in football quickly spread beyond Hamburg to neighboring Bremen, where supporters of Bundesliga side Werder Bremen have launched “Hope Ahead” – a project aimed at providing psychological help for fans by connecting with them various organizations and treatment options in the city.
The team behind the initiative told DW that they were concerned about about how invisible mental health issues were in football, despite their increasing prevalence. “We wanted to change that,” they said.
And their timing couldn’t have been more appropriate, with Werder player Niklas Schmidt publicly announcing that he was suffering from depression in January this year.
In response, the club’s ultras sent out a clear message in support of the midfielder, filling the Ostkurve terrace with banners thanking him for speaking about the topic openly during the home game against Union Berlin.
“End the taboo on mental diseases! Thank you for your openness, Niklas!” read one of the biggest banners, and the 25-year-old went over to thank them for their support at full-time.
“With such a banner at the stadium, you directly reach 42,000 people,” explain the “Hope Ahead” team, calling it “an important symbolic signal” of accepting depression and encouraging people to talk about it openly.
Football as part of the solution
Other supporters, too, have projects which involve dealing with the effects of mental health on fans.
Ultras Düsseldorf, of Fortuna Düsseldorf, have been raising donations for the local mental health center in the city in the past several years, while also holding events where professionals talk about ways to get help; Bayern Munich’s Südkurve, where the club’s ultra groups are stood, developed a concept together with the local Fan Project in aid of people needing help on mental grounds during games.
Several Bundesliga clubs have similar concepts in place, including Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Hertha Berlin.
For some fans, football can also provide a much-needed distraction, if only for a short period of time.
“The good group of people around me probably made football the area with the most normality in my life,” explains Jon, looking forward to his next match, albeit knowing that the excitement, the build-up, the togetherness and the emotions could be followed by more difficult days.
Just like in society at large, the conversation about mental health among football fans is starting to pick up the pace in German football. One thing is clear: The taboo needs to be broken.
Edited by: Matt Ford