The following is a guest contribution by Sonja Missio (@sonjamissio).

I have mental health problems.

Like, real ones. Like, ones I’m medicated for daily and have seen shrinks for since I was about 11-years-old. Like, ones that affect me every day, from the way I eat to how I tell time—two very important activities for an Italian-Swiss like myself.

I have been diagnosed as having hypo-mania, with severe anxiety.

I’ve had lows and I’ve had highs (mostly highs) and it has changed my entire life. Now, don’t get me wrong: I eat right, exercise, have a boyfriend/dog/family/friends/job/mortgage/life, etc. etc. But in spite of everything, I am still crazy.

It took me until my mid-20s to get properly medicated and seen by the right specialists. I’ve done sleep studies and CBT conditioning, and even once saw a homeopath (spoiler: it was crap). And now, with the right and constant chemical support—a pill taken every morning—I am a functioning adult who can pass off as normal.

In fact, being crazy is my normal.

And that’s okay, because I have come to terms with it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fucking suck. Being crazy isn’t glamourous or in vogue, nor is it fixable or easy to deal with. Which leads me to the point of this post: Bell Let’s Talk Day confuses me.

I don’t mean the corporate or philanthropic side, nor the execution. It’s a brilliant marketing campaign, but I don’t understand just what it’s marketing.

To end the stigma of mental illness?

Okay. But what’s “stigma” and what’s “mental illness?” Because what I see people talking about are normal human emotions: you’re allowed to be sad and angry at times.

As someone who (in theory) has suffered the “stigma” of “mental illness” (and I am still not sure what that means), I can tell you that we’re talking about the wrong things. First—and not limited to Bell Let’s Talk Day—we glamourize mental illnesses. It’s all positive! Literally turn that sad emoji into a happy emoji (okay, that’s limited to Bell Let’s Talk Day)! And once we talk about it on social media, it all becomes better (and, weirdly, regulated).

Posts like, “depression get better!” and “I understand and accept your mental health problem!” (I am being intentionally vague) is both insulting and hilarious.

Pro-Mental Health Platforms seem to justify normal emotions, which is actually counterproductive for people who suffer under the (once again, very vague) umbrella of mental illness.

You know what would have be helpful for me while I was going through diagnoses? Knowing how my body would get destroyed once I first started taking medication—not that it was thumbs up that I was insane.

If you want to talk about “mental illness,” then talk about it. Talk about the raw, gritty, aspects of it: the breakdown of your mind, body, and consciousness—not this hegemonic, idealized, standard of “it’s okay to be sad!”

Being sad is not the same as having depression. Being nervous is not the same as having anxiety. Being hyper is not the same as having episodes of mania. Experiencing negative emotions is not the same as having  chemicals that are imbalanced in your brain and affect every aspect of your life.

“Mental health issues” cannot be destigmatized in a few tweets; they can only be detigmatized if we see them for their superficial value: that they really fucking suck.

We understand the horrific effects of cancer, AIDs, dementia, etc. because we talk frankly about them; we’ve actually destigmatized them (NB: I realize they are not all destigmatized equally. I mean to the point of popular understanding of what they are as  diseases); however, we have never, ever talked frankly about whatever mental illnesses are.

Turning a frowny face into a smiley face, or a thumbs-down to a thumbs-up, or having mental health superheroes may make the topic of mental health accessible to the masses, but it marginalizes those who have seen the real side of depression, addiction, mania, anxiety, etc.

To be blunt: the problem is that the current mental health platform appeals to an already acceptable, hegemonic, “normal” standard—which doesn’t appeal to crazy people. The target is impressionable people on social media who briefly think for the day, “Yeah! I get sad sometimes! I must have depression, and that’s okay!”

However (more bluntness), having mental illness is NOT normal and it’s NOT okay. In the same way that having a more “acceptable” illness (ie. cancer, AIDS, dementia) is not normal or okay.

What I mean by this is that having an illness—any illness—is not okay because there is something detrimental to your well-being. It doesn’t make you a bad person for being affected by it, but it’s not “okay” or “normal,” and it has to be dealt with.

Basically, it comes down to this: if you want to end the stigma, treat mental illness like an illness, not a cool Twitter topic. I get that we’re raising awareness, but we shouldn’t try to normalize something that is not normal.

But what the fuck do I know, I’m crazy.

Sonja Missio lives her crazy life in Toronto.

EricThe following is my Last Word (click to read in PDF form) column from a recent edition of Soccer 360 magazine.

In 1938, while battling Francoist forces at the height of the Spanish Civil War, Pere Raurich sustained injuries that required treatment in France. He and his wife found refuge in the tiny commune of Saint-Priese, in the Ardeche department, before settling permanently in Marseille.

It was in Marseille, eighteen years later, that their grandson, Eric, was born. Eleonore, their daughter, had previously married a Sardinian immigrant named Albert Cantona, and little Eric would go on to win six titles at the highest level of club football—four of them with Manchester United.

Eric’s is a story of displacement, which is why, in late September, he revealed he’d be personally housing and feeding a Syrian refugee family for at least two years.

Eric2“My maternal grandparents were Spanish Republicans who fled Franco by crossing the Pyrenees on foot,” he told France Inter radio, adding that his ancestors’ experience had “certainly played a role” in his decision to offer a helping hand.

Three weeks prior to Cantona’s pronouncement, and in the initial pangs of conscience following the drowning death, and candid photograph, of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose family had attempted the perilous crossing from Bodrum, Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, the football world made its first, high-profile response to the emergency through the €1 million donation from Bayern Munich.

“FC Bayern see it as its social responsibility to help those fleeing and suffering children, women and men, to support them and accompany them in Germany,” stated Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the club’s chief executive. Bayern also proceeded to set up a training centre for new arrivals, recognizing the importance of Munich as a main port of entry into the country.

Predictably, albeit commendably, many of Bayern’s European rivals committed similar donations and settlement schemes in the following days and weeks. Arsenal—the first Premier League club to extend support to the refugees fleeing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, ISIL and the various, warring factions in the region—contributed £400,000 and constructed football pitches at refugee camps in Iraq. Barcelona, in partnership with the Red Cross, launched a fundraising drive through its foundation and involved its players in an awareness campaign.

“This is an emergency situation in which 300,000 people have arrived in the continent from countries that are suffering from conflicts,” the Primera Division club declared in a statement. “Barca is encouraging everyone connected to the club to get involved.”

Now, it’s easy to be cynical when groundswells of goodwill produce as much publicity as help. Bayern, after making their commitment, were hailed throughout the world’s media as benevolent, compassionate and socially aware, and the clubs that quickly followed suit could have been, and were to some extent, cast as piggy-backers eager for similar attention.

refugees2But peer through the cynicism (and it’s telling that cynicism is often our default reaction in these instances) and you’ll see genuine compassion, big-hearted generosity and the best of intentions. Many football clubs, after all, were inaugurated as social concerns in the late 19th century and went on representing the interests of their fans through the 20th. To some extent they still do.

“The clubs in many respects are following the public mood,” remarked journalist James Montague in a September interview with the Daily Star. “There has always been a community aspect to clubs. That is how clubs were born—representing an area, a factory and profession.”

He added: “Clubs were built by the fans, and the fans have always set the agenda as how clubs should respond, whether it was Liverpool FC backing dock workers in 1990s Great Britain or German clubs with banners proclaiming ‘refugees welcome’ today.”

Their conscience, in other words, grows from the grassroots. So does their wealth, which, in the cases of Europe’s biggest clubs, positions them as some of the continent’s most prosperous companies. Combine that affluence with a sense of moral responsibility and what results is both the aspiration and means to make a difference—a conscientious imperative to help. Because they can, and therefore should.

Unfortunately, the initiatives being enacted by Europe’s football clubs—and others around the world—are yet to be sufficiently mimicked by many governments whose countries could be doing exponentially more good than the sporting sector. Great Britain, for example, continues to disgrace itself by resisting the resettlement of refugees—an embarrassment we in Canada know all too well.

Beyond the matters of morality and conscience the intake of displaced people provides overwhelming benefits to societies, especially those with aging workforces and the space available to provide physical settlement and integration into tax bases.

And, who knows? Another Eric Cantona may have just now arrived in a land willing to take him. A football club might have provided the funds. Another story of displacement, kindness and achievement may well be underway.

The following is my Last Word (click to read in PDF form) column from a recent edition of Soccer 360 magazine.


Seneca the Younger.

Seneca the Younger.

“If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.”

These words of Seneca were penned during the latter days of the stoic’s retirement on the outskirts of Rome.

Having withdrawn from public life (and given that he spent nearly a decade tutoring the emperor Nero—whom early Preterists held to be the Antichrist—it was quite the life) he imparted what wisdom he had gained in a series of letters addressed to the procurator of Sicily, among which was embedded this quote.

Laced with age and experience, it speaks to the value of an objective. And, between the lines, it warns of a vessel drifting aimlessly, rocked by waves to the side of the frame.

FIFA would do well to adopt Seneca’s hindsight, perhaps altering it into a sort of advanced retrospection to suit it purposes.

With long-time president Sepp Blatter having announced his intention to resign, world football’s governing body has a unique, perhaps unprecedented, opportunity to reset its course, to choose its port of call.

Getting there will no doubt require the sagacity and clairvoyance of an as-yet-unknown captain, but even before he or she is installed at an Extraordinary Council, likely to be convened in early 2016, the organization can at least deliberate on the direction it wants to go.

And it can do so by posing a single, all-encompassing question: “What do we want FIFA to be?” Because it’s only after undergoing such an existential inquiry that the bearings are determined.

Incidentally, many different people have wanted FIFA to be many different things throughout its 111-year history.

Initially comprised of seven European associations with an eye towards broader organization of the sport at international level, it was largely disregarded by the Home Nations, which had little interest in relinquishing their grip on a game they felt was best consolidated in themselves.

To them, at the time, FIFA didn’t seem the sort of body they could manipulate.

But as the fledgling institution grew in numbers and influence, the British, after the Second World War, brought themselves into the fold.

The post-war years saw FIFA run as a mostly Eurocentric society. Twelve of the 16 teams at the 1954 World Cup were European; South America was allocated just a pair of berths. Africa had none.

As it happened, Sir Stanley Rous, president of FIFA between 1961 and 1974, tried for a time to include South Africa in the quadrennial tournament. But as Rous was an apartheid supporter, even this attempt was tinged with racism.

For its administrators from 1946 to 1974, FIFA was a remnant of imperialism. Which is why the election of Joao Havelange was greeted with such enthusiasm throughout the Americas and in Asia, Africa and Oceania—anywhere, really, that was ready to peel away the European tentacles.

The 1982 World Cup—the first under Havelange’s watch—was grown to 24 teams, of which only 14 hailed from Europe. At the 1998 event—the Brazilian’s last—there were four Asian participants, five African and eight from the Americas among the 32, which represented yet another expansion.

As we know, Havelange’s big-business approach to international football and its organizational setup invited no shortage of corruption allegations, but given their enfranchisement it was an oversight the non-European confederations were willing to make. And they continued with the trade-off under Blatter, his successor.

As former Zambia international and current president of that country’s football association remarked after the 79-year-old’s resignation announcement, “Sepp did very well for Africa, and whoever succeeds him should look to do the same.

Added Ghana’s FA chief Kwesi Nyantakyi: “It’s very irritating for someone to ask me why I voted for Blatter. Why shouldn’t I? We take decisions on the situation on the ground by looking at the pros and cons…and whether it benefits us.”

For the non-European bloc, FIFA represents a route to inclusion, and their support of Blatter reads rather differently among that constituency than in the Global North-West, where reform schemes such as privatizing the World Cup and ending the one-confederation, one-vote election system are now being discussed.

“None of these solutions have much to do with the meat of the FBI’s findings,” wrote Elliot Ross in a June 3 editorial for Al Jazeera. “Instead, these so-called solutions favour an old-fashioned power grab, and such responses will permanently impoverish the world’s game if they succeed.”

As Ross went on to explain, the ideal of a global football body involves positive, social construction that accomplishes a universality of enfranchisement across languages, genders, races and socioeconomic barriers.

The idea of FIFA, if this is its raison d’etre, is a good one, an important one, and a complete destruction and reconstruction of the organization would inevitably leave many of the same problems it’s currently experiencing.

No doubt a handful of powerful people involved in football governance must be removed from those places of power over the next few months, and Blatter, should he be guilty of criminal behaviour, might even be among them.

But where does FIFA go from there?

Hopefully, if it embraces the thinking of the stoic, it will first determine the objective before charting the course.

There is something for FIFA in Seneca’s wisdom, but unheeded the winds will be unfavourable, the organization shipwrecked or, at the very least, turned back to a time when it served so very few.

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