December 15, 2023
We need to break the mental health stigma in football. Here is why
Mental health among football players is overlooked, despite being equally vital as their performance on the pitch. I strongly believe it deserves equal attention and recognition.
I‘ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember. The victory of my favourite team (Manchester United) always makes me ecstatic, but losing can leave me in an awful mood for days.
If it affects fans like this, how does it impact the players? Do clubs support them during tough times?
Think about it – how often do we see footballers really opening up about their feelings in interviews? It’s pretty rare. I think this happens because there’s a fear manifested by a society that tells kids, especially boys, not to express emotions or shed tears.
This long-term emotional suppression is one of the causes of mental health challenges.
Additionally, as a teenage football player, I have observed parents imposing high expectations on their children, which adds another layer of anxiety to the already challenging experiences of players.
According to the recent survey from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), released on November 1, National Stress Awareness Day, shows that around a quarter (24%) of male members used the service to seek support for addictive behaviours and gambling, while 27% of female members sought general emotional support.
The PFA also warned about three emerging mental health concerns for professional footballers – addiction to prescription drugs, nicotine pouches and online abuse.
Powerful testimonies shared by Everton midfielder Dele Alli and former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland regarding their struggles with the addiction to painkillers and sleeping pills indicate a gradual shift in breaking stereotypes. I trust these narratives will empower other players to openly express their emotions.
According to PFA, online abuse is a prevalent issue affecting 40% of female players, primarily through social media.
Additionally, the rising use of nicotine among players raises concerns due to its associated health risks, such as cancers in the mouth, throat and pancreas, and increases the chance of heart disease and stroke.
Crystal Palace, a Premier League club based in South London, responding to my questions about mental health issues, highlighted that performance-related stress is a significant factor, with the academy being perceived as an overwhelming environment under constant scrutiny.
In a video shared with me, the Crystal Palace academy physiotherapist, Sion Thomas, emphasised the club’s initial focus on the mental well-being of individuals aged 16-18. I think that this focus is crucial because these young players are the club’s future and valuable investments.
“The staff I am supported by recognise and understand the importance of providing this psychological corner to help players become more rounded as young men,” said Thomas.
Despite these positive moves and some initiatives like Heads up (a collaborative effort between Heads Together and the FA that aims to encourage the conversation about mental health in football), I believe there are still unjust attitudes towards mental health in football.
Some wrongly think that players, who earn a lot, shouldn’t face well-being issues. PFA’s head of welfare, Dr. Michael Bennett, challenges this notion saying: “A bereavement in the family will affect you no matter how much money you’ve got in the bank.”
He emphasised that despite raising awareness around the importance of mental health, there is still an unfair perception that tarnishes footballers. “They will encounter the same issues as anybody else,” he said.
It is time to speak up and work together to end the stigma around mental health in football. The clubs, organisations, and society as a whole should prioritise the mental health of football players.
When players share their own experiences, stories in conjecture to the statistics it can encourage others to express their emotions openly.
By amplifying these voices and advocating for comprehensive mental health support, we can pave the way for a healthier future for football players and generations to come.