By Lee Smith

The sad story of Everton’s Aaron Lennon just a few weeks ago is still fresh in everyone’s memory. As we know, Aaron was hospitalised on the 2nd May following an acute breakdown in his mental health. The football community, and the wider public, wish him well.

But Aaron’s story isn’t at all unusual. Dalian Atkinson also had a crisis situation recently which turned into a tragic fatality. We’re all still reeling after the tragic plight of Gary Speed. Then there was Stan Collymore, who has struggled with depression for years; Paul McGrath, Tony Adams, Gazza, and on, and on, too many to mention, too many to even think about it seems. Right now, according to the PFA, their network of counsellors are helping 178 players, triple the amount for the previous year. What is clear, from these top-flight professionals haunting stories, is that a high salary and an unbelievable lifestyle do not make people immune to mental illness.

While the physical health of footballers is also making shocking headlines (RIP, Ugo), it’s definitely time to get serious about players’ mental health issues. Their minds, as well as their bodies, really matter in football. For those involved with younger players, especially, there are things we can all do – with some simple, trainable techniques – to help individuals and perhaps prevent other crises. The earlier mental health problems can be detected, say the experts, the better the outcomes in later life.

A Football ‘Epidemic’?

What’s unique about football that might hinder – or indeed help – a young person’s mental health? Is it really any different to the issues faced by young people in schools, and those engaging in more ‘mainstream’ activities?

Let’s start with the positives. First off, we know the physical effects of exercise and training, especially with a structure, and balanced with good recovery and healthy nutrition, benefits both physical and mental health. Studies regularly show good physical health is directly linked to positive mental health and a ‘prescription’ of exercise can also help with lots of mental illnesses, such as depression.

Secondly, the organisation, routines and supervision found in a football academy can definitely give young people the order, structure and support which are highly beneficial for good mental health. We know that young people prone to mental health difficulties tend to lack positive support, role models and order in their lives – either because they lacked this support in the first place, or that the mental illness itself has led to a withdrawal from them – while those who have these support mechanisms in place tend to be both physically and mentally more healthy and resilient. The same benefits have also been found by engaging in team sports, like football, over and above individual sports, like athletics. The overall benefits of an individual experiencing themselves as part of a bigger whole, both responsible to and for it, are well documented.

However, there are factors inherent in youth football which are undoubtedly negatives – mental health professionals refer to these as ‘risk factors’ – in relation to the mental health needs of players, and especially younger players. And the bottom line, sadly, is that footballers are more likely than the general population to suffer from mental illness.

Risk Factor:

  • Performance Anxiety: the extreme anxiety that I won’t be able to play
  • Meeting Expectations: feeling as if I’m letting my parents, team mates, fans, coaches down
  • Self-Image (Physical and Emotional): the preoccupation I have with how I look, behave and feel, and how I portray these
  • Experience of Criticism / Rejection: How I deal with setbacks in my career and negative comments
  • Managing High Expressed Emotion: as the rewards in the game get even higher, people will have a lot to say about players, and will say it loudly and harshly. Social media has increased this factor massively.

Mental Health Difficulty:

  • Eating Disorder: a harmful preoccupation with the food I eat usually to control my weight
  • Self-Harm: behaviours that I use to hurt myself usually because I feel I deserve it – obvious things like self-cutting and substance misuse, but also can include things like over-training
  • Aggression / Destructive Behaviour: both on and off the pitch
  • Anxiety: can be a crippling preoccupation with things that might go wrong in the future
  • Depression: likewise, but this preoccupation is with things that I perceive have gone wrong in the past
  • Psychosis / Altered Thoughts: these serious illnesses are conditions in which I might see or hear things that no-one else can, or believe unusual things are happening to me.

Take Responsibility: What Can We Do to Help?

  1. Speak about it. I interviewed several young players as part of this article, and most told me that they felt ‘you’re on your own’. Jordan Nadat, now 26, a seasoned player having been at several clubs since age 8, explains: ‘Kids don’t like to open up to anyone, especially in football, but there’s nobody really there anyway for this type of stuff in academies. Young players think that they have to put up a front, not show any weaknesses’.
  2. Identify the problem, don’t ‘label’ it. The stigma attached to mental illness is still a real problem in the UK and the players I spoke to all said this was definitely the case in football. As a society, we need to get the stage where a mental health issue is perceived exactly as a physical health issue – a condition which can be treated, and a sufferer – a person – who needs care and support.
  3. Understand it. It doesn’t take a doctorate to gain an understanding that can really make a difference to a young person experiencing distress. There are lots of resources online (see the Young Minds website, for example), and some short, excellent courses that can train people (teachers, coaches, and young people themselves) to identify, help and get the right support. Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) is such a course (used by this writers’ own organisation who are also YMHFA trainers) that has had a massive impact, and has recently even been promoted by the Prime Minister for use in all schools.

Have you or someone you know experienced any of these issues? Please speak up.