Tales Black

Mental health in football. There, I said it. See it’s not that difficult, is it? So why is it such a taboo subject in the beautiful game?

In a week that saw Aaron Lennon detained under the mental health act and the world of football speaking up in support, the topic of mental health in the game has been much talked about.

However, there is, of course, the one idiot who has to try and keep the stigma and taboo of mental health. That idiot is none other than serial idiot, Piers Morgan, who tweeted this yesterday.

All of this followed a comment for Morgan, praising Prince Philip’s ‘stiff upper lip’, following the announcement that he would be stepping down from royal duties.

Well Piers, would that be the same stiff upper lip that saw German goalkeeper Robert Enke tragically take his own life in 2009? Would that be the same stiff upper lip that saw Welsh legend Gary Speed tragically take his own life in 2011?

Just two of many footballers who took their own lives because mental health is a taboo subject. So why only now are we starting to talk about? Why do people have die or suffer for it to be talked about?

So, Piers, you can take your stiff up lip and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, because I’m going to talk about, we are all going to talk about it, we all need to talk about it.

Yes, football is a ‘macho’ sport. Yes, they get paid way more than they should but, no one suffering from mental health issues should ever suffer in silence.

‘Man up’ was the phrase Piers Morgan used. In my personal opinion, it takes the bigger man to admit they have a problem, to admit they need help.

Professional footballers suffer physical injuries every single week and they tell the team doctor, the team physio, the team manager, that they have an injury, that they have a problem, that they aren’t healthy.

Does telling someone about your hamstring injury make you any less of man?

We talk about physical health all the time in football, so why, oh why, do we not talk about mental health?

Last year, 62 current and 98 former players requested support from the PFA player welfare department. It’s a real positive that the PFA, FA and Mental Health Football UK provide the vital support network and I commend them greatly for that.

While the number now using these support networks is also a positive, there are still many, many more players who are not.

A 2015 study by FIFPro, the world players union, revealed some truly terrifying statistics.

In total 262 players from five European countries (Finland, France, Norway, Spain, and Sweden) were asked to fill in questionnaires on three moments during a twelve-month period. These players had already participated in a previous part of the study in 2014.

37% of players who did not report symptoms in 2014, reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the 12-month period of the research, far higher than the 26 percent in the previous research.

Using this figures hypothetically, in an average Premier League squad consisting of 25 players, nine would suffer from anxiety and depression. If this was applied across the league, 180 would have mental health problems.

Although the figures from the FIFPro research did not include the Premier League, it should still provide a rough indication of the numbers, and notice, it’s just less than double the 98 players from all four professional English division.

If we were to use the nine out of 25 estimate and calculate the number across the 92 clubs in the Premier League and Football League, 828 would suffer from anxiety and depression.

Yes, I know these are estimates and not accurate figures but, it proves the terrifying point that not enough players are speaking out.

It is clear there is a fear to speak out but, footballers need to.

“I sat on a bench in that park, washed the pills down with a can of beer, and waited for it to happen. In the end I was incredibly lucky, because my girlfriend found me and I was rushed to hospital in time to have my stomach pumped.

“I survived and didn’t tell another soul about the incident for years and didn’t ask for any help. I just locked this suicide attempt away in Pandora’s box.

“I know only too well that most depressives are great actors who can put on a different persona, a facade. What you need to be able to do is open up”

Those are the words of Clarke Carlisle, he spoke out.

“I was coming to the end of my career – I was suffering with injuries and couldn’t get a contract. My life had been football – in at 9am, finish at 12.30. Suddenly there was nothing and I found myself in a rut I couldn’t get out of.

“There were money problems, I went through a divorce – I forgot who I was and I forgot my family which was disappointing as I had young children.

“Looking back I wish I’d got help earlier but unfortunately it got to a stage where I tried to take my own life.

“It seems so far back because I’ve come far – but it’s all been small steps. I feel so much better now and I’m hoping my experiences have helped others. I think it has – I’ve had ex-pros and people still in the game contact me and ask for help.

“Old pros always used to say ‘sort yourself out for after football’ but now there are people who can actually help you do that.

“Don’t be embarrassed – come and speak to someone because if you can nip it in the bud you’ve got a chance to move forward.”

Those are the words of Lee Hendrie, he spoke out.

“I took an overdose and, when that didn’t work, I tried to hang myself.

“People outside football think we have it all,” he said. “But I was in a hole that I honestly didn’t know how to get out of.

“Just over a week ago, I hit rock bottom and decided to end it all.

“I need to sort myself out which is why I’m speaking out now. It’s part of me getting better – part of the healing process.

“People have this image of me as this big strong man who can take anything life throws at him. But I’m not ashamed to say I wanted to end it after a string of setbacks.”

Those are the words of Dean Windass, he spoke out.

Yes, that might have been upsetting and difficult to read but, that is part of the reason why footballers don’t speak out.

Thankfully, there are the brave few like Carlisle, Hendrie, and Windass that do but more need to.

6,188 took their own lives in 2016 and suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK. How many less could that have been if the taboo and stigma of mental health was no longer if they could speak out and get help, without being judged by idiots like Piers Morgan and feeling embarrassed because of it?

We have made huge steps both in football and in society to talk about mental health but, we have so much further to go. I say we because it’s more than just a case of people who suffer speaking out. They need the support when they do so, or it will be for nothing.

We all have a part to play in this, and we need to play it, sooner rather than later.