The stigma surrounding mental health in football

When football becomes the topic of conversation, rarely do we talk about mental health alongside the sport.

Thousands if not millions of us will get together every week to cheer on our teams. We will watch live or on television, analyse games, discuss player performances and criticise our beloved eleven when things don’t go our way, but how often do we think about the wellbeing of the players? How many of us consider that the reason someone had a bad game could possibly be down to the fact that they are struggling mentally?  

A quick Google search on mental health in football will bring up multiple charities that are involved with the sport. You will also see articles and personal stories covering the subject, but the stigma remains, and the hypermasculine culture surrounding football can make it extremely difficult for those involved with the game to seek help or even just talk about their mental health.

Following the recent death by suicide of a former local football player at Mousehole AFC and having battled with mental health conditions myself all my life, I became driven to find out on a local and national level what people are doing to help those in need.

The tragic deaths of the former Mousehole player Rheiss Mclean and another member of the football community in the South West, Wellington player Lloyd Manning, motivated teams to act. The managers of Mousehole and Wellington from the Toolstation Western League, Jake Ash and Alex Pope appeared on a podcast to discuss mental health and to help raise awareness. The podcast can be found on the Toolstation League website. 

“I had two separate managers who contacted me and said ‘that was the kick up the backside I needed hearing that and seeing what you guys put in place, that’s made us think about what we do’ and if nothing else, that’s a huge positive to come out of it,” said Jake on the podcast. 

Alex added: “We’re essentially a band of brothers, so if that sort of environment can’t pull together to try and keep an eye on each other’s backs then where does it happen? We’re fortunate where we do have that social media following and that presence where we can have other managers and clubs see that something has happened here and we’re looking to do something positive. That’s the power of football. It’s a great vehicle for things like this.” 

The football clubs devised a mental health plan. I spoke to the director in charge of media and education outreach at Mousehole AFC Kevin Bishop to find out more about the policy and get his thoughts on the topic of mental health in football. 

“Although mental health is something we think about a lot, we realised we didn’t have anything in place that was policy, so myself, the manager, and the matchday medic met up and decided to go ahead with some more formal training,” said Kevin. “I’ve also produced a document for the club which is the first five steps towards building stronger mental health provision. It takes us through various things we are doing at the club to ensure that we are more aware, both us as staff and other members of the club.”

I played for many youth teams as a child and experienced the constant so-called banter, bullying tactics and pressure to perform on a weekly basis, and know first-hand that this environment isn’t always the best place to bring up mental health. I was suffering in silence, and did not know who to talk to regarding the depression I was feeling. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable bringing it up.

Kevin told me that he believes this is no longer the case at a lot of clubs and that improvements have been made over the past 15 to 20 years. He said: “I think that a football club is an ideal place to tackle it because you don’t only have a place where people come together and you can see problems developing, but also the nature of being in a club together and relying on each other for not only the sport they play but also for the support network around it. The changing room is a really important place for young men to express their problems.”

The consensus now is that we have made progress as a nation. More people than ever before are opening up and reaching out when they are feeling mentally unwell. In 2019, 653 players accessed therapy. It was only 160 in 2016. Teams, players and charities alike are taking steps to help people, but it’s clear that when a player in the public eye comes forward and talks about their mental health struggles, they aren’t treated the same afterwards.

Former Tottenham and England defender Danny Rose opened up about his experiences regarding his mental health in 2018. When he was approached by another club who were interested in signing him, they told him that they wanted to meet him first to check that he “wasn’t crazy” based on what he had said in his interview about what he was going through. Rose said that he was “angry” and “embarrassed” by this. He said that “football still has a long way to go.”

Mental health advocate and former footballer Clarke Carlisle attempted to take his own life back in 2014. After the suicide attempt, he was criticised by actor Ralf Little. Clarke was left severely depressed after his football career and was experiencing financial difficulties. He has long been outspoken about his struggles and has been a vital voice in the fight against the stigma of mental health in football. Carlisle started a mental health charity and has recently created a course that provides academic qualifications for mental health advocates.

Despite the incredible work from people like Clarke, far too often the brave footballers who decide to speak out about their mental health struggles with disregard for the consequences are simply ignored. The tragic suicides of young players are often brushed under the rug, and we carry on as if nothing happened. Jeremy Wiston was only 18 years old when he took his own life less than two years after he was released from Manchester City. A serious knee injury prevented him from playing, and so he was let go. Jeremy had told his father that he felt he wasn’t getting the right support to find a new club.

There are many factors to consider, but players can be seen as a number and not a human being. Some are plagued by injuries such as Wiston and are forced to abandon their dream. Others are released from their clubs if they don’t make the cut and their wellbeing isn’t considered at all. Their whole life revolves around football until they are shunned.

More thought needs to be given to these players. In Sport Psychology – The Key Concepts by Ellis Cashmore, the author defines depression and goes on to say how it can form rapidly. Cashmore gives details on a case study about an athlete whose mother had died: “The athlete reported lack of energy, low motivation to perform and several recurring injuries which were later revealed to be symptomatic of depression.” It is worth considering that players who suffer injuries can quickly develop depression, but also people that already suffer psychologically can develop injuries due to depression. Poor diet, Lack of focus and sleep and training habits can play a role in this.

The proof that the stigma remains is there to see based on the figures detailing how many players suffer from depression or even decide to take their own lives. According to an ITV News survey released in 2021, 72% of players who responded felt they were not given enough support by the club that released them, and 88% said they felt anxious or depressed after being let go.

How many decide to keep this a secret? Sadly, there are too many cases in which we find this out only when it’s too late. The hope is that when someone speaks up, they can set a precedent for others, but many continue to stay quiet when this happens in fear of being rejected or forced out, seen as a liability or even mocked. Sometimes it takes a tragic event like a suicide to spark a conversation, and as a society it feels like we are missing a step.

Football does indeed still have a long way to go, but charities like Mind are leading the charge to defeat the game’s mental health stigma. They partnered up with the English Football League in 2018 and since then the charity has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to support mental health services by organising events such as sponsored challenges and charity football tournaments.

There is plenty of hope for the beautiful game yet. Over 2,600 staff in EFL clubs have been trained in mental health awareness. England manager Gareth Southgate and other influential football personalities are coming forward to talk about mental health more and more.

There are reasons to be optimistic that the work being done will encourage more people to seek help. Role models and big football clubs must be front and centre and take responsibility to make sure people feel comfortable talking about their mental health. They cannot shy away from the subject at this critical moment in time. This will hopefully inspire local and amateur clubs to do the same. Chelsea and England full-back Ben Chilwell is the latest star to spark the conversation by talking about his mental struggles and saying that the stigma “needs to go.” The more this message is pushed, the more the stigma will dissipate. We as a footballing nation must unite to save lives and change minds.

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