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Teresa Enke's tireless battle

Jörg Strohschein
November 5, 2019

Ten years ago, German goalie Robert Enke died by suicide. Since then, his wife Teresa has worked to raise awareness of depression and to offer people support, but has her work made an impact?

Teresa Enke, Uli Hoeness and NDR journalist Andreas Kaeckell at a Robert Enke Stiftung event in Hannover's Theater am Aegi, November 4, 2019.
Image: imago images/J. Sielski

Raising awareness about depression

A sad evening in Hanover's Theater am Aegi ended with a standing ovation. Those in attendance applauded Teresa Enke for the way she channeled her grief at the suicide of her husband Robert — the renowned German national team goalkeeper — turning it into courage and strength.

Monday night's event in the city where Enke finished his career served as another reminder of how much energy Teresa has put into trying to "give the tragedy meaning," as she puts it. Through the Robert Enke Foundation which she set up, she seeks to improve the lot of those stricken with depression. It's no easy task, and yet she has come a long way. As a result of her work, there are new opportunities for counseling across Germany.

Candles standing on top of a picture of Robert Enke, placed by fans in Hanover on the anniversary of his death. Archive photo from 2011.
Enke was Hannover and Germany's first-choice keeper when he took his life in 2009Image: picture alliance / dpa

Teresa Enke: 'We've come a long way already'

Among those she invited to the event was Bayern Munich President Uli Hoeness, because Teresa Enke greatly admires the way he takes care of his players "and sees the people, not just the footballers."

Hoeness spoke about his experience with Sebastian Deisler. Hoeness and Deisler were close, but the talented midfielder suffered from depression and quit the game altogether aged just 27.

"Even today I greatly regret that we did not manage to enable him to keep playing," Hoeness told the crowd, explaining how helpless he and the whole club felt at such times.

Read more:  Robert Enke's legacy lives on eight years after his death

'It was an unprecedented situation'

Andreas Marlovits experienced a similar helplessness in his professional life. He was the sports psychologist responsible for counseling Hannover 96 players after Robert Enke's suicide. Initially, the club had tried for three months to get by without turning to a therapist.

Enke's death caught the club totally unawares, and Malovits says that the team appeared overburdened.

Andreas Marlovits
Andreas Marlovits worked with Hannover players in the aftermath of Enke's suicideImage: picture-alliance/Kokenge

"It was an unprecedented situation and as a result there was very little expertise on it [at the club]," Marlovits told DW, saying that he was given an extensive assignment on arrival.

"We had to try to stop the free fall and to enable the squad to deliver performances again. That really was an intensive phase of the process," Marlovits, also a sport psychologist at the private university Business School Berlin, recalled. "Trying to put a psychological issue like suicide out of players' minds is difficult — it's almost a contradiction in terms. When you score a goal, you're supposed to celebrate. And then, across from you, there's death."

Still room to improve in pro football

The 53-year-old Marlovits, who now works with Werder Bremen as a psychologist, has 20 years of experience in professional sports. In his opinion, Enke's 2009 death had a lasting impact, even if it wasn't immediately apparent. 

"The topic subsided again relatively quickly, as things returned to normal. But a sensibility for the issue did remain. You noticed that a kind of caution or consciousness was raised, as if people had noticed this illness' existence and realized how dangerous it can be," Marlovits said.

Sports psychologists are obligatory for all Bundesliga youth academies. Young players receive regular help. However, professional football still has some ground to make up. 

"Psychology is struggling to break into the game; it's forever under this Damocles' sword of being associated with failure. But that is changing, step by step. Nevertheless it's the case that, to date, not many clubs have brought in support from sports psychologists," Marlovits said.

Read more:  Robert Enke's widow believes former footballer died a martyr

Not all athletes open to issue

This is an issue that sports psychologist Marion Sulprizio deals with on a daily basis.

"The crux of the problem is that anything to do with mental health still tends to be approached with anxiety," Sulprizio told DW.

She is the manager of "Mentally Strengthened," an initiative operated by the German Sports University in Cologne in conjunction with the Robert Enke Foundation, a health insurer and Germany's Association of Professional Football Players (VDV). The initiative looks to provide assistance to athletes who run into psychological problems.

Teresa Enke
Teresa Enke's charity in her husband's name seeks to offer athletes supportImage: imago images/J. Sielski

"But I don't know how deeply this has sunk in, in the minds of many athletes," Sulprizio said. Although the level of awareness may have increased, she says there is still a long way to go.

In the eight years since it was founded, the project has helped around 400 athletes from various sports. 

"Studies show that competitive athletes and coaches are by no means immune to psychological problems such as stress, anxiety, depression or eating disorders, and the incidence rates are similar to those of the population at large," Sulprizio said.

Pressure not a cause of depression

"I was a little surprised by what happened to Robert Enke. But if you look at it statistically, you would think it would actually occur more frequently, not only in football, but in all competitive sports," Marlovits said. "If I'm not mistaken, it's not the pressure that leads to depression, otherwise many more athletes would get it."

However, mental illness will always remain an extremely sensitive issue.

"It also has something to do with people's mental makeup. People tend to try to keep functioning independently for as long as possible, even if they are already suffering quite a bit. Mental pain feels very different to physical pain," Marlovits said.

Teresa Enke concluded her comments in Hanover with a message that she hopes those in attendance will spread: "It wasn't Robbi who killed himself, it was the disease," she said.

If you are suffering from emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, seek professional help. You can find information on where to find help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: www.befrienders.org