Mental health problems affecting the Premier League’s top players is an issue that crops up every now and again, but it is also an issue which is usually quickly dealt with swept under the carpet. Wayne Rooney has been one such player who has had rumours about the state of his mental health floating around on fan forums and in the tabloid press. However, the conclusion is usually that his personal problems, which are exaggerated by the press, do not equate to the same thing as mental health problems. Despite the discussion, strained though it always is, the real issue is never properly addressed. In the UK, one in four people suffer with mental health problems, but in the glamorous world of Premier League footballers it appears to many that the problem does not extend to the players. The macho, tough-guy persona that footballers are encouraged to adopt at grass-roots levels make young men reluctant to talk about mental health, afraid that it will be used against them as a weakness. However, many in the game are seeing through the façade and are thankfully seeking a way to address the potential problems.
The strained relationship between mental health and professional football
A career in professional football is extremely stressful. The stakes are always high and the pressure on individuals to perform is unimaginable. Any mistake will have them jeered by thousands and spread across the back pages of the national press. The higher the level, the higher the stakes. All this pressure undoubtedly takes a toll on the mental functioning of some players. The constant highs and lows and public nature of everything they do can become a severe burden, and without the knowledge they can safely talk to a mental health professional about their issues – for fear of their problems becoming public knowledge – it only leads to the pressure becoming more of a mental burden. While the physical health of players is always a high priority, their mental health is often mistakenly overlooked.
Dealing with the problem at grass roots level
If U Care Share is a charity involved in encouraging young players to discuss their issues with a view to making mental health a less taboo subject among footballers. The charity holds sessions with youngsters explaining the dangers of bottling up their feelings and providing information on where they can turn if there’s a problem. The sessions teach important lessons to a group of young people who are particularly vulnerable to the conditions that put great strain on a person’s mental capabilities.
Changing the culture of football
As has been seen by the drive to remove racism and the campaign to make gay players feel welcome in the game, the initiatives to promote more awareness of mental health issues is part of a wider attempt to change the culture of football in England. Most people welcome the change, however, there is still a long way to go before efforts like those of If U Care Share can be deemed a success. With such a macho environment, from team mates and coaches alike, opening up is always going to be a difficult thing for individuals to do and the fragility of certain players’ mental state will always be at risk. Giving them an option of someone to talk to in confidence is of crucial importance to the future of the game. Most top level clubs, Manchester United included, now have a mental health first aider on board who is the first point of contact for any player wishing to get anything off their chest. Clubs are beginning to realise that their duty of care goes beyond the physical fitness of the players and it is in their interest to look after the players mentally too. With over 3,400 young players in Premier League academies, it is extremely short sighted to believe that these youngsters won’t suffer the same problems as the young population of the UK at large.
Breaking the Taboo
Perhaps in the future, rumours of depression and mental health problems affecting star players like Rooney will become a thing of the past and the football clubs and fans will e able to deal with these issues in a more understanding and sensitive manner. The main aim of breaking the taboo is to create an environment in English football where players are never afraid to admit that they need help. As football clubs continue to take responsibility for their duty of care towards players, this is thankfully beginning to change.