Arsenal legend Paul Merson reflected upon his experience of dealing with depression during his playing days by saying: “In those days, you are thinking ‘I don’t know what is wrong with me, how can I be like this? I’m playing the best sport in the world, I’ve got the best job in the world, I play for one of the best clubs in Europe, I’m earning good money and I’m like this. It can’t be right.’” Similarly, Chris Kirkland, the former Liverpool goalkeeper, remembered being so depressed that he didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, and went as far as to say that football played a significant role in aggravating his problems.
It might seem surprising to learn that even the most successful and famous footballers can be susceptible to depression, and that it can impact them significantly, both personally and professionally. Clearly, discussion of this oft-neglected problem is imperative.
Recently, The Football Association (FA) has started various new projects that aim to help those suffering from mental health problems. These projects include access to a 24hour counselling helpline and self-help publications. In addition, the organisation has also affiliated itself with a clinic set up by former Arsenal player Tony Adams, who was inspired by his own recovery from alcoholism, which aims to support current and former professional sportspeople in asking for help and speaking out. The FA have also started a program called “Time to Change”, which aims to encourage football players to discuss their mental health and raise awareness of the prominence of this issue in professional football. They have also brought attention to other, similar initiatives within other sports.
But this problem has evidently been going on for a long time now why is it that the FA and other organisations have only recognised it now? To answer this question, it is worth considering the number of players who have revealed that they suffered from these problems at some point in their career. Historically, the subject of mental health has been considered taboo. Consequently, players were reluctant to admit to the ‘weaknesses’ associated with mental health problems. Gareth Southgate, the current England manager, admitted that players “are not comfortable opening up” in fear of showing “weakness in front of each other”. Since then, many other players and managers alike have come forward to raise awareness for mental health.
Arsene Wenger commented on whether Arsenal are doing their bit to help, stating: “We help on the mental front the players that want help. It is difficult for the players when they do not meet their needs, and like all of us, they are frustrated and suffer with self-esteem [issues] in some situations.
“So, what might be contributing to this recurring problem? According to various reports, one significant cause of depression in footballers stems from injuries. When a player acquires a long-term injury, they must sit for long periods on the side-line before returning to the pitch the pressure of re-joining the team post recovery can be a struggle. The intense scrutiny that footballers come under, as well as the immense pressure to be successful, can also contribute to their susceptibility to depression. Various other factors further compound these problems, such as the difficulty in finding a good balance between their professional and personal lives.
Other than the steps made by the various football associations, what other measures can be taken to solve this problem? Football is a sport of enormous cultural value, and naturally, professional footballers are held in very high regard. Thus, it becomes difficult for these players to speak out and admit to suffering from mental health problems.
One way this can be acknowledged is for the boards of football clubs to raise awareness about the importance of speaking out and trying to establish a different culture for mental health which can aid players in both their professional and personal lives. Moreover, the players themselves need to feel free to seek help before it is too late. This not only helps the individual in need, but also encourages other players to open about their feelings.
One problem often seen professional football is that more emphasis is placed upon the improvement of the player’s performance rather than their mental wellbeing. This points to the framework of medical care for current footballers acting as a barrier for players to report any mental health issues they are battling. Even with the presence of a sport psychologist within a professional football club, not much improvement can be made in terms of the mental health of the players if the treatment framework offered to them compromises their mental wellbeing in order to improve their performance.
On a more positive note, this system is slowly being replaced by another which is more flexible when it comes to catering to each individual player’s mental health alongside their performances on the pitch. With an increasing number of players reaching out for help, this issue seems to have taken centre stage. In a sport where the individuals taking part are both simultaneously glorified and judged constantly, it comes as a surprise that it has taken so long for a matter that has been so prevalent in our society to come to the fore in football. But as the saying goes, “better late than never” it is heartening, as a football lover, to see that the situation is being addressed and taken seriously. For a sport that brings so much joy and excitement to its fans, why can the same not be the case for its players?