Paul Merson says it was his desire to live that gave him the strength to speak up about his own battles with addiction and depression during his footballing career.

The former Arsenal and England attacking midfielder first spoke of his experiences with depression and gambling addiction last year, and is now encouraging others to open up.

“I think a lot of credit goes to people in society now – that we are given an opportunity to talk, to express ourselves and not get judged, that’s the main thing,” Merson told the PA news agency.

“You’ve got to remember, in 1993-94 when mine (mental health issues) first started – my addictions and when I was getting depressed and I wanted to kill myself – my first thought was ‘if I tell anybody about this, I’m going to be thrown out of the football club. I’m going to be put in a straitjacket and I’m going to never play football again’.

“That’s not the case any more. The way that it’s moved on, people are advised to talk – and it’s good to talk.”

“If you’re depressed and you’ve got addiction problems, it’s OK, it’s an illness and people are not going to judge you. That’s the main thing we get out of this and to talk to people, it’s just so important.

“A problem shared is a problem halved and I think it’s one of the best sayings in the world.”

There are 18 deaths by suicide every day in the UK, of which 75 per cent are male, and suicide remains the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

Merson, who was speaking at a Silent Football match hosted by Powerleague and suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), said a key part of his recovery was finding the strength to open up about his experiences.

Paul Merson represented a number of clubs, including Arsenal during his career
Paul Merson pictured in action for Arsenal (Rui Vieira/PA)

“How did I get that strength? From being too scared,” recalled the 53-year-old Sky Sports pundit, who won two league titles, the Cup Winners’ Cup, FA Cup and League Cup with the Gunners.

“I was so scared that in the end I had no other choice (than) to take a chance, because I wanted to live. I wanted to live, so my choice was to come out and tell everybody my problems and take that chance, you know.

“In addictions you’re always thinking the worst. But there are good people out there.

“The most important thing I had to remember was that I was a good person, and I was ill, not evil.

“That’s the thing and that’s what it was – I was scared and I wanted to live.”

:: Paul Merson was speaking to the PA news agency at a ‘silent’ five-a-side football match launched by Powerleague, Street Soccer London and suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) to highlight the importance of communication in preventing mental health issues.