Suicide is the single biggest killer of men in the UK under 45. Football is a sport that is not often associated with empathy, and this is a reason why mental health has been long neglected in it. To come out and openly discuss your feelings was seen as a weakness in a sport that requires ruthlessness and the strongest of personalities. As times are changing, so is the sport’s attitude towards mental health, we can’t hide from it any longer.
For a very long time, football has been ignoring and brushing aside discussions around mental health. The topic would not have even gotten a second look in the 1970s and 1980s. The stereotype that a man had to be “tough” and show no emotional side was very much prominent in society. Society had built this aura around what “real men” should be like, which included their toughness and ability to handle their issues without seeking help. Most men in society feared to speak openly about their problems due to the backlash they feared they would receive and how they would be painted. The sport requires those involved to be ruthless and selfish, to win at all costs and to inflict defeat upon opponents. This “come out on top at all costs” male attitude was not just in football but in life.
The “alpha male” status is something that has been sought for by generations of males and is still a crucial part in the animal kingdom. The “alpha” would stand tall and assume a dominant role above all others and take control of a group. This is something that every male wants to be because it puts you at the top of the food chain; you would be seen as the toughest both mentally and physically. Everyone was expected to be just like the alpha male, and you couldn’t show any signs of weakness. In sport, teams who show any sign of weakness are instantly targeted by the surrounding packs. Players could not openly express their worries or personal issues. They would then be seen as a weak link in a team. The footballing world is all about confidence and arrogance. If you aren’t the best or didn’t have a desire to win, then you are brushed aside. All of the best teams had that confidence and desire to win, even when they weren’t at their best, but these figures in dressing rooms are slowly dying.
The stigma around mental health in both sport and society has been around for far too long, and although progress is being made, it is years too late. To be a football player in the 1970s and 1980s, you needed to carry yourself in a certain way and have a strong personality. You needed to be mentally tough because if you weren’t, you would be shredded by teammates. You could say things to people back then that would not be acceptable today. This was the peak “alpha male” era where everyone wanted to be the best. Each team would have 11 of the most dominant and strongest players available to them. Men were not encouraged to speak up about their problems; they would be told to get themselves together and to deal with it. Males have been oppressing their emotions for centuries because to open up and express yourself was viewed as ‘weak’.
The ignorance towards mental health for so long is something that society is now trying to reform with a new generational attitude towards the issue. The platform to speak without judgement has been broadened and applauded for those that take that leap of faith. Former footballers have opened up about their struggles with depression and other issues throughout their career. Players like Ryan Giggs, Robbie Savage, Tony Adams and Stan Collymore, to name a few, have all spoken out about their sufferings in the past. They all suffered in silence at a time where millions of eyes were on them in the spotlight. They didn’t feel comfortable speaking out because the platform wasn’t there to be open about themselves.
The most tragic example of this is the late, great Gary Speed, who tragically took his own life due to his silent struggle with depression. It wasn’t until his death in 2011 that football had nowhere to hide and had to face up to the issues surrounding mental health in the game. At the time, no one knew of any problems he was suffering with, he was still the manager of Wales and had just been a guest on Football Focus that same day appearing to be in “high spirits”. His family couldn’t understand why the 42-year-old would take his life, closure that they still can’t find to this day. His wife didn’t even know what was going on in his head; there was never any signs of mental illness. It took something as tragic as his death for the footballing world to take action finally.
Speed’s death got the ball rolling for more men, in general, to come forward and talk about their problems. Because he was such a prominent figure who no one thought had issues, it gave people the confidence to speak up. It showed us that footballers are humans too, and they can suffer the same problems as everyone else. People realised that if someone of the calibre of Gary Speed couldn’t handle these problems, then they needed to seek help. This was the beginning of a significant change both in football and society. The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) received a significant number of calls from players looking to get help themselves due to the impact of Speed’s death. Players’ attitudes changed as they became more open to the prospect of speaking about their problems instead of bottling them up. The PFA have now made a significant investment in this area of player welfare.
One organisation that has tried to play its part is ‘Mind Kicks,’ set up by Tim Stoodley. After suffering his own experiences, he set up this charity to raise awareness of mental health issues in football. He is focused on breaking barriers and the stigma that exists around this topic. He wants to change the way football fans think about mental health by using footballers to speak about their problems to make them realise how serious this is. Another charity that has seen a significant rise in figures is ‘Sporting Chance,’ a clinic set up by Arsenal legend Tony Adams to help footballers suffering from addictions and illnesses. This was set up in 2000 to provide a specialist facility for all athletes suffering in silence. This is a safe environment for athletes to come and be open about their problems in confidence. Adams set this up following his troubles with alcoholism. These are just a few examples of the many platforms now available to support footballers and all athletes alike.
Because of these organisations coming out to give footballers the chance to be open about their issues, more and more footballers now have the confidence to speak out. Danny Rose became one of the first players to openly discuss his struggles with depression that would lead to colleagues and fellow pros coming out. The number of players seeking counsel is rising, which is great to see. We are even witnessing players only recently retired talking about how difficult it has been to cope without football that was their life for almost 20 years. One of the most significant issues is that there aren’t many opportunities out there for footballers post-career. Most of them only know football, so if they don’t fancy coaching or punditry, it can be a very worrying time. This is where a lot of them slip into betting and drinking addictions. They simply don’t know what else to do with their time and money. Nothing can compare them for life after football, the thrill of playing is incomparable to anything else, which is why so many struggle in retirement.
The attitude towards mental health is probably the best it has ever been. The encouragement to come forward that was never there before is available now in abundance. Society is doing its best to raise awareness for men’s mental health and the importance of not keeping your emotions hidden. “It’s ok not to be ok” is one of the most recognised slogans throughout these campaigns. These efforts in recent years have been an enormous success and received positive feedback and praise. For this to work, more men need to speak up about what they are going through, so it is great to see this happening. This, however, is only the start of something positive. In the grand scheme of things, we have merely scratched the surface when it comes to tackling mental health in football. But it’s a start and something that will have a significant impact on the game.
The Premier League have played their part by raising awareness with campaigns in recent years. One of the most recent campaigns that started earlier this year was called Heads Up. This is an initiative driven by Prince William that aims to encourage the conversation about mental health in football. They hope to emphasise that mental health is just as important as physical health. They first worked with the FA in January. During the third round of FA Cup fixtures, each match was delayed by 60 seconds in which a minutes silence was held to reflect on people’s mental health. Then in February, over two weekends, the topic was seen branded around each stadium, match programme and kit. This was a huge success and was met with positive feedback; we need more of this, more often. Every club in the league now has a mental health first-aider, trained to provide immediate support and health to those seeking it. Football is now tackling this issue head-on.
The broad consensus amongst clubs and players across English football is that while there have been great strides made, there is much more that needs to be done for more footballers to seek help. While 24/7 phone lines have become available for footballers, it just isn’t enough. They are opening up like they never have before, so they will need it to be done in a proper environment, preferably face to face. It is no easy task to come forward and open up when you have the status that these players have. It is a courageous thing to do. They should be commended and looked upon as role models to lead the way for more men to open up. By seeing these footballers speak up, it encourages those who look up to them to do the same.
This is how football can play such a massive part in influencing change in society. It has one of the most significant followings in the world, so whatever message they want to promote, it will reach out to millions. We are now seeing the Premier League come out in support of taboo topics like racism and sexuality like never before. Their support of this is pivotal and a reason why significant changes are happening on and off the pitch. The more this is talked about, the more chance something will be done. Imagine if we talked about mental health as much as we talked about football.
We can no longer hide from mental health, both in football and society. It is something that we need to speak up about, and the more that we do, the more chance there is of a real change occurring. While we have seen an improvement in attitude towards this and broader support systems in place, this is only the start. It’s time to stand up and speak out, the day’s of suffering in silence are no more; there is always someone to talk to.