Straight from the Horse’s Mouth – Stigma of Mental Health in the Football Industry

Occasionally, it is worth taking a step back and taking a look at where we are with mental health and the stigma that profoundly surrounds it. Mental health has recently relished a good few weeks where it has been high on the news agenda, with Prince Harry and Prince William speaking out about it and then more recently Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) getting involved after one of its members was reported to have been detained on a Section 2 of the Mental Health Act.

The very fact that mental health is on the national news agenda shows what evolvement has been made in recent years. Even just five years ago, it would rarely get a mention so, although we have a long way to go, we are making steps to moving forward. People all over the country are now seeing what happens with mental health (particularly in the sports industry) and how unacceptable some of the treatment of those some of the treatment of those with mental health issues really is. The more we talk about these issues, the more we undermine the stigma that surrounds it and the more it becomes socially acceptable to talk about mental illness. I always compare it to Cancer, which was something that was just not talked about 20 years ago, but is now accepted as a completely normal part of health conversation.

In recent news the subject of mental health has been emphasised again after Everton Footballer Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act due to concerns for his welfare when he was found standing beside a busy road. Lennon was taken to hospital to be assessed and is now being treated for a stress-related illness. It can be said that in general there is a stigma around mental health conditions; but why is it so hard for sports men and women to talk about it? It appears to be around being seen as a weakness in people and if someone is dedicating there life to competing as the best, they are going to struggle with something they fear as a weakness. It is sad but that appears to have been the reality for some years.

Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that mental illness does not discriminate and it can affect anyone from any walk of life. Although biology plays a part in some illnesses it is important to recognise that 20% of mental health begins before the age of 14. I know better than most that sport is a fickle industry and you may be signed at a top level academy at a young age and out of contract by 21, with no employment prospects due to putting all your eggs in one basket. Coming to terms with your life outside of all you have known from a young age can increase low mood impacting on your mental well-being, all of a sudden your self-esteem is shot down as you have spent the majority of your life pleasing managers, coaches and fans.

“I’ve grown up in my sport with the impression I was meant to be a superhero. You’re supposed to be able to handle things. You are in high pressure situations so you are convinced you should be able to handle those situations yourself, so it is hard to get help, it is admitting you have a weakness”. – Natasha Danvers, athlete

In November 2011 the whole country was in mourning after hearing that Gary Speed took his own life, although these were tragic circumstances it had a profound impact on mental health in football and in 2012 the PFA provided a dedicated service to help with its members’ well-being and the numbers taking advantage of that are on the rise.

“I think it is a male mind-set that it is seen as a weakness so for people like Clarke Carlisle, Rio Ferdinand – even Prince Harry – to talk about their own experience brings the taboo down and you become more comfortable being able to talk about it. Stress, anxiety, depression are a symptom of something and we try to work out what the root issue is and then place them with the nearest counsellor to where they live, and they just get on with it in a private and confidential setting.” Michael Bennett (PFA head of welfare) openly told Press Association Sport.

To cut a long story short small and steady steps are being made to support mental illness in sports industry and The PFA look to have taken it by the horns and run by bringing in a system which compromises a variety of help and advice options, a 24 hour helpline and teamed up with the campaign Time to Change introducing a Footballers Guidebook that had information and support on mental health for players. Talking about mental health openly will break the stigma and as a society the walls are slowly being broken down, always remember not every disability is visible and with that in mind we will help the world to understand mental illness…