How Football Saved My Life: The Remarkable Story Of James Casling

The great Bill Shankly once said that football isn't a matter of life and death - it is much more important than that.

He's right. Football is important. The majority who play it do selfless, charitable good in this world and those who watch it are inspired by its unpredictability and enchantment.

For me, a game of football allows us to forget politics and other struggles in life.

I often come across those who question the significance of our sport. Self-indulgent, overpaid and arrogant are just a number of words used to describe those who play the game, but after speaking to a young lad from North London today, I can tell you - hand on heart - that Shankly was right.

Football can end in tears of sadness, but it can also end in ineffable joy. It brings people together, young and old - of all different backgrounds. I'm a strong believer that football can save lives.

Just ask 21-year-old James Casling.

Image: Facebook
Image: Facebook

On the 20th May 2010, Casling woke up to celebrate his 15th birthday in North London with his mum, dad and two brothers, but his life changed forever when his father tragically killed himself.

It was a moment that will stay with him forever.

Almost seven years on from that harrowing day, James admits that he struggles with everyday life, but one thing has helped through tremendously tough times - football.

"I'm still lost. It's hard to explain, but losing my dad was like losing all of me." James told SPORTbible.

"When he did die, he didn't take himself - he took me with him. Of course I have football, but I will always be lost."

"My dad was my light. I would have followed him through hell, but I lost that light when he died."


Over the next three years, James would try to kill himself on multiple occasions.

Eventually, after a number of failed suicide attempts, the troubled teen was sectioned and admitted to the Park Royal Mental Health Centre in North-West London.

"Three weeks after my 18th birthday, I was admitted to Park Royal. The two years that followed was like hell. It was the darkest time of my life.

"I was broken and suicidal but when I was on the ward, a guy called Tom saved my life.

"He asked me if I wanted to play football and of course I said yes. It got me out of hospital for a few hours."

James would ask his mum to buy him a pair of football boots, and the rest is history.

"At the time I didn't realise, but if my mum didn't buy me those boots, things might not have changed, and I might have lost my life to mental illness."

James
James

James had not only found a hobby in football, but a means of worth.

After a monumentally difficult period following the death of his father, he was slowly beginning to find happiness - thanks to our beautiful game.

"Football gave me a reason to live and build myself up instead of destroying myself. I felt like I belong when I put the kit on. These guys are not friends, they are family.

"Football means everything to me.

"Football is the constant in my life. I love the buzz I get from being on the pitch. Putting the kit on to me, is everything."

I have previously spoken about mental health in sport, but I will reiterate a very important point.

The extent of mental health problems are very real. 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime. In 2013, there were 6,233 suicides recorded in the UK for people aged 15 and older.

Understanding mental health is just as important as physical health.

Between three and nine professional footballers in a 25-person squad could show symptoms of common mental disorders such as distress, anxiety or depression, during a season.

Away from the game, one in four people will experience a mental health illness in their lifetime.

"Mental health is like fighting a war where the only person fighting is you." James told us. "And the only casualty is you. It is like a game of chess.

"No matter how good your move is, it's always one step ahead of you and if it wins, unfortunately you lose your life."

In the media spotlight, surrounded by money, power and wealth, many forget that even elite sportsmen and women are people too.

They are no exception. The stigma surrounding mental health is still ever present but people like James and a trio of Queens Park Rangers players are helping to break those views.

Nedum Onouha, Matt Smith and Ryan Manning joined James in an emotional discussion when the 21-year-old visited his beloved Queen's Park Rangers this month.

James spoke to the trio about his journey, and how football has saved his life.

"It was incredible for them to see the other side of football, and how the sport can actually be used to recover those who suffer from mental health." he said.

I finished our interview with something that can hopefully help at least someone who is suffering from mental health.

James gave one piece of advice to those suffering from mental illness, and his answer is typically insightful and inspired:

"It feels like the end of the world, but it's a beginning - you see the world a lot differently. You never know what tomorrow brings, so make sure you're still here to see it."

Make sure you're still here to see it.


Jack Kenmare

Jack Kenmare is a writer at SPORTbible. He's interviewed some huge names in the world of sport, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pele, Carles Puyol and Tim Henman. He dabbles in all things sport, but football is his biggest passion. He was once hit in the head by a wayward strike from Nicky Butt and lived to tell the tale.

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