Depression in football

The BBC Three programme ‘Football’s Suicide Secret’, which was shown last week, highlighted the very real dangers that many professional footballers face in coping with depression. PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle, who is recently retired from the game, presented the documentary which looked at his own personal psychological battle with setback and how he had attempted suicide when younger, as well as how other players had been affected by this mental condition. Can, and should, the football authorities do more to help with this issue?

Anyone who watched the programme couldn’t help but admire the strength of character of players like Lee Hendrie and Leon McKenzie, who had sunk to the very bottom after being on top for so long, yet had managed to pull through the other side when all hope seemed lost. Hendrie was a very well-known Aston Villa star that had the huge salary and lifestyle that you expect from a Premiership footballer, whilst McKenzie was scoring goals for Norwich in the same division less than ten years ago. They have ended up on very different paths but share a similar tale of how the mind can affect anyone, regardless of status or wealth.

After Clarke Carlisle interviewed David Bernstein, the FA Chairman, about the support that is currently in place for depression and other mental illnesses for footballers, it was obvious that it was an area that wasn’t really being looked into as thoroughly as it should have been. Whilst Bernstein acknowledged that there is an avenue for players wanting help, it is certainly not as simple as it perhaps needs to be, particularly when there is still such stigma attached to admitting depression.

The National Counsellors Support Network has been set up with 16 qualified counsellors able to provide assistance to members with mental health issues, some of whom are ex-footballers themselves. This is a great scheme, although when put into context of how many players are involved in the pro game it is clear that more work needs to be done.

Hopefully, some of the billions of pounds that are received for media rights and other enterprises can be invested in making sure that an extensive network of support is provided for those in need. The current projects are relatively small scale and not every individual requiring help can be attended to in the best possible way. Gary Speed’s tragic death in November 2011 brought the issue into sharp focus, as even when someone is relatively successful in their job and personal life they can still suffer from mental illness.

There is no justification for those who claim that players should just get on with things and cope with the regular abuse and criticism they receive on a weekly basis. I challenge anyone to go into their place of work and receive such treatment and see how long you last before it begins to affect your personality and mood. Fans need to understand that although it is acceptable to give opposition players a hard time regarding their performance during a match, it should not be accepted that insulting a player’s family or wishing horrific things upon his loved ones is an appropriate way to behave.

Education is key so that players, managers, fans and the media understand that mental health is just as important as physical health. If a player is injured for several months with an Achilles injury, for example, no-one would question the recovery time required. However, if a player is suffering from mental health issues and needs time to overcome this, the level of understanding would drop significantly, despite the fact that this type of injury is no less serious than a physical one. 

Managers often say that the difference between winning and losing a close game can be psychological. Penalty shootouts are regularly decided by the team with the strongest mental state, not necessarily the best spot kick takers. Isn’t it about time we started investing in protecting and developing players’ mental health then?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *