This series of features aims to explore the “beautiful game” of football and discuss the aspects you perhaps don’t hear about too often. The underbelly of the world’s game, the things that need addressing for it to truly deserve its beautiful nickname in three parts.
The following words will discuss one of football’s bigger taboo subjects, an issue the game is very slowly beginning to acknowledge, mental health.
In the last ten years the issue of mental health in football has seen a meteoric rise in the public conscience. Since the tragic deaths of Gary Speed and Robert Enke in 2011 and 2009 respectively the footballing world has made vast strides towards the eradication of mental health at club level and in the stands. The media, the fans and the players have all happily accepted the problem the sport has with mental health and have come together to combat it. Modern players find themselves wholeheartedly accepted for their struggles and regularly find their issues treated with the greatest respect and admiration from fans and fellow players.
Except, actually no, none of this is true. Not really. Despite the deaths of Gary Speed and Robert Enke approaching their ten years anniversary’s over the coming years and notable ex-players like Clarke Carlisle and Rio Ferdinand bravely discussing their struggles, the subject has still been widely taboo, widely spoken of in hushed tones in private, widely mocked by fellow players and fans, widely kept as far away from the field as possible, widely pushed under the carpet, widely ignored.
Despite the hard work of many dedicated, hardworking people like the ones over at mind, the Football Leagues official charity or CALM, the subject remains a generally un-represented one in the public conscience. Without better education for all in the game the issue will only snowball and mental health in football will truly earn the moniker of footballs silent killer.
FIFPro, the worldwide representative organization carried out research in 2016, they found that 37% of the footballers currently playing that were questioned were suffering from depression or anxiety, a 11% rise from a similar 2014 study. 14% of active footballers end up turning to alcohol, and the number rises to upwards of 25% after retirement. Stats like this paint a worrying picture of life as a footballer, despite all of the glitz, glamour and money there is a deep pit just waiting for an up and coming player to fall into.
Lee Adams tried to take his life a few years ago after family troubles. Since then he’s dedicated his life to men’s mental health and preventing male suicide. He chose football as a basis for his cause because he looked at the statistics, the biggest killer of men under 45 is suicide, the biggest audience for football is men under 45. The statistics matched up too well for Lee to ignore. He sees the effects a life as a football can have on a young player all too well. “young, a lot of money, a lot of people want to know you, loads of fake friends, women throwing themselves at you, people willing to be your best friend, massive stress. For example, Paul Gascoine had a friend, Jimmy Five Bellies they called him, he was always with him wherever he went, he just drank himself to oblivion and when Gazza needed him he wasn’t there. You’ve lived in a privileged world, a lot of people would love to (live it), but it comes with its demons. There is a massive element of loneliness, anxiety which can lead on to depression and more.”
Lee is part of a team who have been raising money for mental health charity Calm by walking from Fulham to various different away day destinations. In May they walked 92 miles from Fulham all the way to Birmingham to raise awareness for mental health in men. This coming weekend (Saturday 18th August) he’ll be walking from Craven Cottage to Wembley when Fulham play Tottenham in the capital. If you wish to support Lee’s cause please go HERE.
On the morning of 11th November 2009 football fans around the world woke up to discover the news that the previous night Robert Enke, a top German keeper at the time playing for Bundesliga side Hannover, in consideration for selection for the upcoming World Cup squad had killed himself. Aged 32 Robert Enke decided to take his own life by stepping in front of a train, hours after telling his wife he was going to training.
This was a dark day for German football, a dark day for the sport in general. In response to this, the German FA, in collaboration with Roberts widow, Teresa Enke formed The Robert Enke Foundation to help players with mental health issues and to educate people on the struggles their heroes can go through. This initiative has been a huge success towards normalising mental health in German Football and since then players like World Cup winner Mario Gotze have opened up on their struggles.
Two years after Robert Enke, then Wales manager and former Leeds and Newcastle Premier League player Gary
Speed also took his life. The reasons for Gary Speeds death are still unknown, though some ideas have been put forward, nobody knows why a man at the peak of his career would choose to end his life. This is something that the footballing world needs to address, these men shouldn’t have had to suffer alone.
Alan Tonge came through the academy at Manchester United but was told that he wasn’t going to make it before moving to Exeter where he experienced another huge setback, he was forced to retire at 24 due to serious spinal injuries, ending his lifelong dream before he could truly get started. Since then he has gained a PHD in football psychology challenges and is an Ambassador for Mental Health FA.
He sees the prevention of cases like Gary Speed and Robert Enke’s to be unlikely with the way football clubs are run currently, without a change in the system more football player may find themselves slipping through the cracks, thus meaning tragic cases like these could become more prevalent.
“It’s very difficult, players don’t speak up fully sometimes and what you’ve got to be careful of sometimes in those environments is, it’s almost like you become an actor, you’re having to act, to become somebody else to get on and I think that’s totally wrong and again, maybe football clubs need to look at the way they’re run in a little more depth and make sure that if a player is suffering with mental health or with psychological challenges there’s somewhere in that club they can go to open up to without getting stigmatised, without somebody saying they’re “not up for it” or they’re “not cut out for football”.
“I think Danny Rose recently came out around the world cup, spoke about some of his issues and I think it was Aaron Lennon, he’s been one who’s recently been in the media about the situation that he faced so there are more and more players now that you’re starting to read about a little bit more so maybe we are starting to move towards that environment where you can be a little bit more honest about how you’re feeling.“
In response to Gary Speeds death the FA sent out a guidebook to all 4000 of its members as well as 50,000 ex-professionals detailing how to help handle depression in case they may be suffering in silence. It was viewed at the time as a small but necessary step in the right direction to start educating people and letting them know that the support system is available to them should they need it.
Lee Adams doesn’t see this as enough, he feels that pamphlets and educational videos aren’t enough without a safe environment to share with other people, these people may end up choosing to take their own life. “No, no, I don’t (think the safeguards in place are enough), if somebody’s very determined to do it. You’re alone, you don’t feel like you can relate to anybody, it’s such a unique weird feeling. Then you find a group where people are talking, you realise you’re not alone…it needs the art of conversation to open up and listen and understand, once people do this you’d be surprised how many people you’re saving.”
Looking ahead to the future, mental health is a growing issue. it’s unlikely we will see how deep its hooks have sunk into the sport for a few years yet. Without it being normalised to the extent where players feel comfortable talking, at least behind closed doors much more than they are, nobody will know just how many of the 4000 FA members or the 50,000 ex players the FA sent their mental health guidebook out to may have been legitimately struggling.
The only hope is that in the future I can look back on this piece of work and genuinely, with no cynicism write”In the last ten years the issue of mental health in football has seen a meteoric rise in the public conscience. Since the tragic deaths of Gary Speed and Robert Enke in 2011 and 2009 respectively the footballing world has made vast strides towards the eradication of mental health at club level and in the stands. The media, the fans and the players have all happily accepted the problem the sport has with mental health and have come together to combat it. Modern players find themselves wholeheartedly accepted for their struggles and regularly find their issues treated with the greatest respect and admiration from fans and fellow players.”