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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH IN FOOTBALL
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Chances are, you probably know the oft-cited stat that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health issue at some point in our lives. But equally, you may also be aware of how awkward it can still feel to 'admit' going to therapy or having anxiety in front of colleagues and even friends. And, sadly, this attitude is often magnified when it comes to those playing in the modern game.
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We’re writing this during Mental Health Awareness Week, when a new study has shown that rising numbers of players are requesting help with issues like anxiety and depression. And against the backdrop of Everton winger Aaron Lennon being detained under the Mental Health Act - which saw a flood of support on social media from sports professionals, including Frank Bruno, someone who’s no stranger to talking about depression himself.
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Sadly, Lennon’s case isn’t isolated. While the public face of mental health in sport is changing, in reality footballers still struggle, with notable suicides from Robert Enke to Gary Speed. Corinthian CB Fry - "the most variously gifted Englishman of any age" - suffered multiple nervous breakdowns and mental health issues throughout his life. The combined pressures of waxing and waning celebrity, the pressure of being a top athlete, the competition of your peers and being under scrutiny in the public eye can’t help but add to latent underlying vulnerabilities. In any competition, someone always has to lose and you’re only ever up for a finite period of time - which may account for a 2014 study that found over a third of pro footballers have experienced mental health problems - on average far more than the general public.
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Mental health in football has often been described as having a stigma. If so, you’ve got to ask - where does this stigma come from? Why is it still here? How can we fix it? Anyone who’s experienced mental health problems knows how hard it can be to share your problems. Now just imagine that you’ve got a League to win, fans following your every Tweet and the media at your door.
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Perhaps it’s a cultural problem - we’ve all heard someone call another person ‘crazy’ if they act unconventionally, or point out that someone they don’t approve of needs to ‘see a shrink’. Perhaps it’s a self-fulfilling legacy of the idolisation, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, of football ‘hard men’ by the media and players themselves, one that thankfully feels more antiquated year after year.
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It’s not all bad though. The other side of football and sport is that it can be a powerful tool to deal with mental illness, as the FA’s own website attests. Aside from the obvious mood-boosting effects of sport - research shows it can be as useful as medicines and therapy - it is also mindful, allowing you to focus on a task rather than on yourself. It’s even being actively used by therapists. Recently the University of Lancashire’s Dr Helen Spandler wrote in the Huffington Post about how she treats patients of depression using footballing metaphors - an unexpectedly literal but inspired way to connect men who may not have had access to, or feel comfortable with, mental health professionals.
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"Stress comes in many forms, physical, emotional and societal," says Matt Smith, a personal trainer at Fire & Steel Fitness who specialises in a holistic approach to fitness that involves body and mind. "We all feel this pressure to be a certain way, to look, to conform, to be assessed positively by our peers. In team sports you can often feel alone, you're the one to win/lose the game...when in fact there's a whole other team of people around feeling the same way. Learn to support others and you will invariably find your self being supported. It is OK to speak out, to have feelings and emotions regardless of what masculine archetype you buy into."

While there are sadly too many to list here, these are some of the most notable footballers who’ve spoken out about mental health and helped raise its awareness, and our understanding, for the better:
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CB Fry
It’s testament to how prolific Corinthian footballer, cricketer, journalist, politician Charles Burgess Fry’s life was that his mental health issues are often a footnote in chronicles of him. These came to a head in the 1920s, however, when he experienced a nervous breakdown whose effects would recur over the next decade. Perhaps it’s sign of the times but, unlike today’s sportspeople, Fry mental health is conspicuously absent from his autobiography.
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Clarke Carlisle
Carlisle, the former PFA chairman, ex-Burnley and QPR defender and former team-mate of Aaron Lennon has been vocal about his mental health and past suicide attempt, even setting up the Clark Carlisle Foundation. He has been critical of the FA for not having well-defined guidelines to help care for players suffering from the wide range of mental health problems they are susceptible to.
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Steve Harper
Sunderland goalie Steve Harper hit the headlines when he spoke out against the PFA in 2016 for not caring enough for footballers as they get older. Open about his depression caused in part by a lack of work, Harper was a victim of another modern mental health issue, online abuse from fans causing him to close his Twitter account. The PFA did set up a department in 2012 for player welfare, but the rising figures show there’s clearly more work to be done.
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Rio Ferdinand
Following the death of his wife, Ferdinand released the critically-acclaimed BBC documentary, Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad this year, which opened up a debate about the grieving process and showed a man who’s no stranger to controversial statements openly dealing with his loss, crying on screen and making steps towards accepting professional help.
Corinthian 1882 Centre Tee

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