78% of professional footballers in England and Scotland recently surveyed in Four Four Two (02/01/2013) magazine’s Player’s Poll strongly agreed or agreed that depression was a problem in the game, while only 6% disagreed.
What the Player’s Poll did not touch upon was the issue of the stigma of why depression and mental ill health is still considered ‘one of the last great taboos’ in professional football.
Four Four Two’s findings suggest that depression and mental ill-health, statistically, is a greater concern in the minds of professional footballers than racism, homophobia, match-fixing and drug abuse.
63% of professionals disagreed that a gay footballer would be an outcast, 13% of players believe that performance enhancing drugs are used in football, a similar figure know match fixing goes on, while 26% said they had heard another player make a racist comment during a match.
Of course the severity of these problems in the professional game is not diminished by the startling statistic on concerns over depression, but these figures belie the occasional and often tragedy-associated treatment that mental ill health receives in the footballing world, particularly in the media. It seems, to outsiders at least, that mental ill-health is rarely discussed outside of its relation to the sad deaths of Robert Enke, or Gary Speed. There are however, outstanding exceptions to this norm.
Despite what can only be judged an unequivocal response there also remains a sentiment that, even in spite of a number of ex-professional footballers such as Stan Collymore and Neil Lennon publically disclosing their battles with mental illness, depression remains taboo for those still playing the game. While depression has been discussed by former players, it clearly remains a difficult subject for current professionals to discuss.
Why Professional Footballers? Why Depression?
In the world of football there is a commonplace tendency to equate our footballing icons with the status of titans or demi-gods which obscures the fact that ‘professional players are human beings, not machines’. This fact is what Professional Footballers’s Association Chairman Clarke Carlisle poignantly points out in the PFA’s Footballer’s Guidebook, a short illustrated pamphlet which attempts to tackle mental illness and stigma in the game.
Unlike machines, professional footballers are susceptible to the same pressures and emotions as the rest of us ‘human beings’. But it is clear that there are certain factors in the modern game, especially at the highest level, that may warrant professional football being looked at as a special case.
It is a common assumption that the modern game creates a lifestyle of wealth and fame for professional footballers that they cannot fail to be happy with. Yet this lifestyle comes at the cost of intense media scrutiny and a distance from everyday realities that can leave footballers perhaps feeling alone and isolated in the trappings of their fame and fortune.
This view is shared by Ian Crawford, who runs the ‘Get Active’ campaign at the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH). Speaking to We Are Free Agents he said, ‘there is perhaps a common misconception that the privileged occupation enjoyed by players should make them immune to mental ill health. However the reality is that they are just as susceptible to the same anxieties and insecurities as any other person’.
The Mental Health Foundation claims that one in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. When twenty-two human beings take to the field on Saturday afternoons throughout the season, lucrative salaries and celebrity status should not be expected to stand in the way of this statistic.
‘Being released as a young player, retirement, long term injury and others’ are all factors that Mr. Crawford was quick to highlight as potentially having a serious impact on professional players’ mental health. Professional footballers also have relatively short careers for obvious physical reasons. According to the PFA in England the average career length of a professional footballer is just 7 years, after which their earnings will fall by up to as much as 75%.
‘The current economic climate in Scottish football’ claims Mr. Crawford ‘ensures that more players are finding themselves out of work, earning lower salaries and facing subsequent financial pressures as a result’.
When this is combined with the fact that 75% of professional footballers are released or have left the game before the age 21, it creates difficult situations and high levels of uncertainty across the game amongst a demographic of young men at particularly acute risk of mental health problems.
It is also suggested that retired players can fail to adjust to the fact they are no longer playing professional football. This inability to adjust to the life off the field can lead to alcohol abuse, divorce and high rates of depression and mental health problems.
The greatest testimony to this comes from Paul Gascoigne who revealed in his autobiography Gazza, ‘Football is all I know, all I’ve ever known, so being out of it was utter misery. I drank to pass the time, to make the days go quickly.’
The weighty testimony of former professionals who were at the top of their game in the 90s may lead us to think that depression afflicts those of a certain era of our national game, characterized by the likes of Paul Gascoigne or Stan Collymore. If it were, then depression and mental ill-health may be easy to dismiss and ignore as an awful hallmark of a by-gone era. But the shocking statistic remains, and we can sadly put a contemporary face to it.
The recent retirement at 24 of Michael Johnson, who at one stage in his career looked destined for the pinnacle of footballing stardom, for mental health reasons is a reminder that depression and mental ill-health lurks not far from the surface at Britain’s top clubs, and amongst its brightest stars.
Having been released by Manchester City in December 2012, Johnson asked that he may be ‘left alone to get on with the rest of his life’. The PFA in England will hopefully be there for Mr. Johnson if or when he needs it, honouring its commitment to lifelong membership.
In tomorrow’s second part of our special report, we look at what has been done to try and tackle the stigma of mental health in professional football.