Mental health and football: A changing relationship?

(Image courtesy of Guy Levy/BBC/PA)

As more top players speak out, others may feel empowered to discuss their troubles

The mental health of male professional footballers has long been something that has been hidden away, with the game as a collective unwilling to tackle the problem. For a long time, it struggled to accept that there was one. However, in light of recent pushes for open conversation to be had about the psychological state of players, the topic resurfaced this week as Daniel James spoke honestly about how “speaking out” has helped him with his troubles.

In May 2019; on the verge of an eventual dream move to Manchester United having shone in the 2018-19 Championship season for Swansea, James’ father passed away. When he scored on his United debut against Chelsea in August, the winger emotionally paid tribute to his late father by pointing to the sky. Now, in a BBC interview during a visit to Place2Place FC in Wigan — a club established to promote positive attitudes towards men’s mental health — James hopes to encourage other men to do the same.

“I think that’s always helped me so much, just always stay positive,” James said.

“When something like that happens I think it’s always best to speak out and I think when I have spoken to people in similar situations, it’s helped me so much.”

Footballers are human beings, no different from the average man in the street. Hearing them talk of their human troubles and struggle with mental health is healthy and empowering. In fact, by courageously sharing his experiences, the impact of an elite athlete doing so can have a profound impact on men across the country and further afield.

As James said this week, “People never know what’s really going on inside and the hardest thing is…to speak out.”

If this star who seemingly has the world at his feet and is assumed to be happy with his life can find comfort in talking to people about such a sensitive topic, hopefully this serves as inspiration for other men, athlete or non-athlete, to follow suit. But James is not the first to do so and will not be the last.

Danny Rose has been a trailblazer for a revolution of opinion regarding mental health in football. In a refreshingly honest revelation during the World Cup in 2018 — while on duty before travelling to Russia with England — Rose told newspapers that “[a challenging season prior to the World Cup damaged by injury and family tragedy] led to me seeing a psychologist and I was diagnosed with depression, which nobody knows about.”

Rose added, “I haven’t told my mum or my dad, and they are probably going to be really angry reading this, but I’ve kept it to myself until now.”

Danny Rose at an England media day in June 2018, prior to the World Cup in Russia. Rose revealed his ongoing battle with depression and has since become a leading face of football’s strides to be more open regarding mental health. (Image courtesy of Paul Greenwood/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock).

It was an unprecedented move of its kind, but a vital one. English football was forced to sit up and take notice as one of the nation’s premier heroes explained how the treatment of a knee injury originally sustained in 2017 led to an extended period of turmoil, culminating in Rose’s public disclosure.

There are, of course, a variety of reasons that someone may be struggling with their mental health. These various problems were exhibited by Rose and other prominent figures in the BBC’s ‘A Royal Team Talk: Tackling Mental Health’ documentary which aired last May, during Mental Health Awareness Week.

The idea was to provide exposure to what had become an increasingly talked-about topic. In both the footballing and monarchical senses, it was indeed a royal team assembled to address the issue at hand: presenter Dan Walker was joined by Rose, Peter Crouch, Jermaine Jenas, Thierry Henry, Gareth Southgate and future king Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. As a collective, they spoke honestly about their past and difficult times regarding their mental health.

The documentary opened a new door and felt like an important step in likely inspiring men both in and out of football who have struggled with depression or anxiety for their own personal reasons. It was an extension of Rose’s openness. It felt like the start of a new dawn.

One of the most striking and crucial messages of the documentary was that professional footballers are no different from the average man. As it developed, Walker welcomed four men who had all previously faced mental health issues of their own. The shock factor of meeting their heroes along with the resulting kickabout were uplifting, but it was about more than these isolated stories. It was a tool of empowerment for all men and a push towards re-establishing a connection between men with real struggles, breaking down ideas of weakness and emasculation associated with open talk regarding one’s mental health.

Football, as with many societal issues, can be a catalyst for change. It holds power and influence as the game so many are so passionate about. But there is still work to be done. In September, it was reported that “the rate of suicides in Britain has risen sharply to its highest level since 2002.” Further, people aged 45 to 59 had the highest rates of suicide, with a rate three times higher among men than women. As for 20- to 24-year-old men, there was a leap of 31% to 16.9 per 100,000, from 12.9 a year earlier. In football, the death of Gary Speed in late 2011 stunned football and made it take notice. Male suicide is a serious problem that needs addressing, providing the horrifying end to so many stories of depression among men of all ages.

In July, just a month before James made his memorable and poignant debut, Marvin Sordell announced his retirement from professional football. Sordell, like Rose, has become an outspoken voice on mental health in football, and has talked about both trying to take his own life and finding a solution to tackle his darker inner thoughts.

Earlier, in September 2018, Sordell spoke to the Guardian about his ongoing depression. Having played for England Under-21s and represented Team GB in the London Olympics in 2012, Sordell found the footballing industry wearing him down. At his lowest, he attempted suicide.

Yet, Sordell’s story is another one to celebrate. He grew fond of writing poetry and has since pursued a career in film-making. Speaking of his first poem, titled Denis Prose (an anagram of depression), Sordell said, “I wanted to make depression real so people can understand how you are fighting for control over yourself.”

Despite positive moves such as heavy investment by the PFA into its player welfare programs and the increasing number of club-appointed player care officers, Sordell has since said that football is not doing enough. Rather, it has just begun to scratch the surface.

As demonstrated, it is not always an easy feat to talk about or find solutions to such a severe inner struggle. It is complicated. But if football can continue to make positive strides forward through empowering talk surrounding depression and offering more help to players and ex-players when they need it most, hopefully the alarming numbers of depression cases and suicides across the country will begin to reduce. The incredible bravery of players such as James, Rose and Sordell can certainly help…

Thursday, Feb. 6 is Time to Change’s “Time to Talk Day 2020.” The mental health campaign was launched in 2007 and aims to reduce mental health-related stigma and discrimination.

What’s more, for two weekends in February — starting Feb. 8-9 — every team from across the Premier League, EFL, National League, Barclays FA Women’s Super League, FA Women’s Championship and FA Women’s National League will dedicate their matches to Heads Up, a partnership between us and Heads Together. Read more here.

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