As last week’s mental health week did brilliantly to raise awareness of depression, we take a look at how the illness affects footballers.
Playing professional football, or other elite level sports, is to many the fantasy they dream about daily; be-it volleying that dandelion like you’re Tony Yeboah, or shouting: “I could do better than that!” from the stands as the star striker hits another wayward effort into Row Z.
But it’s that pressure, expectancy, and knowing that you are only ever one mistimed tackle away from ruin which can take such a devastating toll on players’ mental health.
The International Players’ Union FIFPro carried out surprising research that suggested 26% of professional footballers suffered from mental health problems compared to the 19.7% of the general public (1).
Clarke Carlisle, the former chairman of the PFA, explained that when players do eventually hang their boots up, this figure distressingly goes up to 40% (2).
Carlisle has made his battle with severe depression no secret to the media, often openly speaking about the multiple attempts he has made on his own life and encouraging all players from far and wide to open up about their problems.
Yet as many depression suffers know unfortunately too well, admitting they need help is quite a daunting prospect and only just the start of the process.
In late November 2011, the football world was rocked by the awful news of the untimely passing of the then Wales manager Gary Speed. Speed had racked up 677 career appearances, winning the old First Division with Leeds before becoming a household name at Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United.
So why did a player with such an illustrious career, and who was currently leading his country through a football revival feel that the only way to solve his problem was suicide? Unfortunately we may never know…
“He hid it from us and it stopped him asking for help,” explained Speed’s sister Lesley in a BBC documentary. “We were just so sad that we couldn’t help him through. That’s a huge regret that I didn’t get him to one side and say ‘is everything alright?”
Suicide, the biggest killer of men aged between 18 and 35, is tragically the only way that some feel is the way to end their suffering.
And now the FA, encouraged by the PFA, is finally starting to recognise the severity that mental health issues can have on their players. Every club is now required to have a mental health specialist to help deal with any issues and hard times first-teamers, or academy prospects, may be going through.
Ex Manchester City defender Paul Lake experienced the lows of football-related depression after multiple cruciate ligament injuries saw his career cut short. Now a support manager with the club, he explains the narrow-mindness of some of those involved within his academy days (3).
“When I played, there wasn’t really any mental health provision, and there was a real lack of understanding and awareness.
“Anyone suffering with depression or anxiety was ignored and was seen as weak. You were told: “Roll your sleeves up and get on with it. You’ve got a great opportunity, here… what’s your problem?” adds Lake.
For many, that’s the problem. The so called ‘great opportunity’ is arguably one of the most pressurised career paths young men can follow.
Similarly to clubs now following Arsene Wenger’s desire for players to have nutritionists to boost physical health, the clubs now realise how vital a healthy mind is as well as a healthy hamstring.
Exercise is one of the key ways that any GP or counsellor will advise in order to help against mental health disorders. So why is it that footballers, who spend the majority or their working hours outside with a ball at their feet, are suffering in such high numbers?
The despair of injury, the stress and anxiety of transfers and even a slight drop in form or results can spell disaster for the pros.
When one in four footballers are having problems off the pitch, all it can take is one bad performance or one abusive chant from supporters for a player to go from stable to miserable.
Depression, which carries an unwanted stigma in society, is something that Spurs and England left back Danny Rose was praised for opening up about.
“England has been my salvation and I can’t thank the manager and the medical staff enough. It was really hard, and being referred to a doctor and psychologist by the Spurs club doctor helped me massively to cope.” (4)
Similarly to the late Gary Speed, the immediate thought amongst the general public was something along the lines of ‘he plays for England, how could he be depressed?’
But the simple truth is, like any other disease or serious condition, Depression can affect anyone.
Rose’s openness about his battle is something that could help and encourage others suffering to open up and get the help they need. The hope is that young people who look up to these footballers may try follow in their brave footsteps and get the help they so desperately need.
1 in 15 will make an attempt on their own life. Be open with how you truly feel, visit your GP or if you are really struggling, call The Samaritans on 116 123.