Jason Brown: I want to help other athletes battling depression

Jason Brown
Jason Brown saved a penalty from Wigan's Svetoslav Todorov on his Premier League debut in 2006

He made his Wales debut alongside Gareth Bale, was headhunted by Arsene Wenger and is CEO at a football club on the other side of the world.

However, all the way along the path from Charlton Athletic's youth set-up to Thai club Air Force Central - via the Premier League - Jason Brown has had to contend with depression.

Brown says mental illness is common in professional sport - and he now hopes to help others cope.

The 37-year-old remembers feeling he was in "the loneliest place in the world," during his playing career, and there were many more dark days when he retired.

"I have had depression for a long time," Brown told BBC Sport Wales.

"I had an eating disorder - nobody knows that. At one point I used to make myself sick.

"I would go for a run at 5am for an hour. If I felt I'd eaten too much, I would go for another run at midnight.

"All of these things happen in football - it's real - but many people don't know or understand that.

"Many players don't want to come to terms with depression. Athletes are proud people. They have been programmed not to give up or show weakness.

"But they are normal people and everyone suffers. We need to address the stigma around it."

Jason Brown
Jason Brown spent two years coaching in Arsenal's academy

Brown's playing career took off when he left Charlton for Gillingham in 2001.

He went on to play Premier League football for Blackburn Rovers, and had loan spells at Leeds United, Leyton Orient and Cardiff City before joining Aberdeen.

There was a brief stint at Ipswich in 2013 before Brown dropped into non-league football prior to his retirement aged just 33.

"As an athlete you are two people," he adds.

"The athlete takes over - they run you. When you finish playing, the athlete is no longer needed.

"I know Jason Brown the athlete and what I did in my career, but I don't know who Jason Brown the person is. I am still trying to find out."

In recovery

Brown is seeing a counsellor about his mental health problems and describes himself as being "in recovery".

"I accept I am going to have bad days and I have to be aware of that," he adds.

"But where I was, when I didn't sleep for three days, I never want to be back there."

Brown feels sympathy when he sees footballers being criticised.

"A lot of people don't understand that many players are suffering from depression," he says.

"You go straight from school into football. You don't have a proper childhood - you have to go from an early teen straight to a man.

"Once you make the first team, you have a lot of money and you start acting up. You don't want to be alone.

"You have these people around you and part of you knows they are not right for you, but you are already stuck in the rut.

"When you're winning you have people around you all the time, but when you lose it's the worst feeling in the world.

"I want to try to help young athletes as well as retiring athletes to cope, to say it's okay to feel down."

Brown's problems were exacerbated as his playing days drew to a close.

"A lot happened in a short space of time. My dad died, my uncle died, my marriage broke down and I retired," he explains.

"It was possibly too much to cope with. Being institutionalised like we are, athletes tend to struggle when they retire.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown won three Wales caps

"Something like 40 per cent of footballers get divorced when they retire. You go from changing room banter to spending all this time with your partner.

"When I was at Blackburn we were in Europe and I was playing international football. My bag stayed by the door because I was always travelling.

"All of a sudden that all goes and you don't know what to do with yourself."

Brown's time as a full-time coach began - briefly - at Gillingham.

"Justin Edinburgh, may he rest in peace, took me there," says Brown of the former Spurs defender, who died earlier in June after suffering a cardiac arrest.

"I was there about three weeks trying to get my contract done then out of the blue I got a call from Arsene Wenger's PA.

"I met Arsene. We spoke about goalkeeping and my career. He is a funny man - we were laughing and joking.

"He said he felt I would be a good addition to the club, and the life experiences I got at Arsenal were immense for me. I learned so much."

Off the field troubles

Brown was known to Wenger having worked with Arsenal Ladies towards the end of his playing days.

He was made head of goalkeeping at the Arsenal academy and also spent time with the first team.

Jason Brown and Thierry Henry
Jason Brown worked with Thierry Henry during his time at Arsenal

Unfortunately, at that point, off-field troubles took hold.

"I had a breakdown," he says. "Arsenal gave me huge support."

After leaving the Emirates, Brown applied for numerous coaching jobs in English football.

"I never heard anything," he says. "I know in the UK there is a lot being said now about race and people from ethnic minorities getting jobs.

"Out here (in Thailand), my skin pigmentation has never been an issue. That's how it should be, but unfortunately it's not always the way."

Brown applied for - and got - a job at a football academy in Vietnam, and ended up working for the Vietnamese national side.

He then had a spell coaching Bangladesh before switching to Thailand last year.

He was initially named goalkeeping coaching at Air Force Central, who play in the Thai second tier, before becoming the manager and, in the last couple of months, the CEO.

"It's an honour," he says. "Not often do you get coaches stepping up to this kind of role, especially in a foreign country."

Brown has come a long way since his days at Charlton, when he witnessed the death of a youth-team colleague, Pierre Bolangi.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown made the first-team breakthrough at Gillingham after joining them in 2001

Bolangi drowned in a freezing lake when a team-building exercise went horribly wrong.

"We were young boys on a pre-season trip," Brown says. "It was a tough time for us all."

Having moved on to Gillingham, Brown was called up by Wales Under-21s. Born in London, he qualified as his grandmother was from Newport.

"To play for Wales was an unbelievable honour. My Nan never got to see me play, but it was for her," Brown says.

"When I was kid, I used to cover my school books with pictures of Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes and big Nev (Southall)."

Brown's first full cap came against Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 - the same day that Bale made his senior bow.

"My kids are always banging on about that, asking me what Gareth is like," he says.

"I would have liked to get more caps but to be involved for as long as I was with Wales was a great honour. I cherish it."

Bale's team-mate and facing Ronaldo

Brown was driving to Wales to sign for Swansea City when Mark Hughes called and convinced him to join Blackburn instead.

He saved a penalty against Wigan on his top-flight debut and, though game-time was limited at Rovers, Brown spent six years as a Premier League player.

Gareth Bale takes on Collin Samuel
Jason Brown made his Wales debut in the same game in which Gareth Bale won a first senior cap, the 2-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago in 2006

"I played against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best of all time, and learned a lot," he says.

"I would have liked to play more games but I have no regrets. My time in the Premier League has helped me as a coach."

So what comes next? Brown is in no rush to leave Asia, but the United States is an option.

"I have an American girlfriend now," he says. "We are talking about possibly starting a family and going to America and coaching. I would like to start my own academy there."

At the same time, Brown plans to study to become a counsellor.

"I would like to try to help people," he adds.

"I am a survivor. I think that's the best way to sum it up. I am surviving.

"Maybe if I share my story, the average person, in inverted commas, will think: 'I can do that'."