It’s with caution and an admittance of fear that I begin this particular piece. Like so many of us, the issue of mental health is one I struggle to know exactly how to handle or address – firstly, because I’m acutely aware of my own ignorance of the area and, secondly, because I would hate, under any circumstances, to offend anyone suffering mental health issues. It’s with that in mind that I’ll forge ahead.
The issue of mental health in sport has been brought back into the glaring, white-hot media spotlight thanks to the recent launch of the Mental Health Charter for Sports and Recreation by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in conjunction with the Rugby Football Union, the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Football Association.This is a well-intentioned attempt to structure support for athletes suffering mental health difficulties in a wide range of sports. It’s widely known that the topic of mental health is somewhat of a hot potato in sport and, particularly, in football. In a an often masculine, macho environment, such health problems can seem like weakness by the uninitiated and, as such, those brought up in the shadow of the game we call ‘beautiful’ can feel forced to hide their struggles.
There is no doubt, however, that such struggles can no longer be ignored and the initiative launched by Clegg shows this. With the high profile suicides of German goalkeeper Robert Enke and former Wales national manager Gary Speed, accompanied by attempts by Premier League footballers Clarke Carlisle and Lee Hendrie to take their lives, mental health problems pose a very real and present danger in today’s game. The reasons for those in sport suffering mental health problems are varied. Lee Hendrie has, on numerous occasions, indicated that financial pressures brought on by continuing a lifestyle he could no longer afford after retirement caused him to feel suicidal. He felt self-imposed pressure, having provided homes and other expensive possessions for family and close friends, feeling the fact he could no longer sustain this meant he was letting them down.
But, of course, financial pressures are not the only problem facing footballers. The mental health charity MIND produced a report in which it stated there were 3 main pressure points resulting in mental health problems in sport. One was the constant pressure of possibly ‘losing it all’ – being dropped or not succeeding in a given sport, such that your career may end. Another was the worries that come around retirement – what are athletes to do for the rest of their lives when their sporting career – often finished at a young age, comes to an end. Third, they said, was the pressure in sporting culture to suffer in silence.
Here’s where I maybe get a bit controversial. I appreciate that the pressure on sports stars and, in particular, footballers can be great. Expectations from fans, coupled with huge financial implications for success or failure and media scrutiny can lead to footballers feeling mentally drained. I do not, however, necessarily agree that this environment is any more filled with pressure than that faced by most of us on a day to day basis. We all worry about losing our jobs, our finances and what expectations others have of us. Yes, they may be on a much smaller scale, but they are there and they are real, nonetheless.
What I think this boils down to is that, ultimately, the stigma attached to mental health in sport is very much the same stigma faced by people in everyday life. Like racism and homophobia, ignorance of mental health is rampant in wider society, as much as it is in sport. Movements in the right direction are being made every day and there’s no doubt that Nick Clegg has got the right idea. How effective it will prove to be is yet to be seen, however. Maybe, as Clarke Carlisle says, sport can lead the way in changing attitudes to mental health. Maybe this movement can bring about a wider change in society. I really hope so – I don’t want to read about another Fashanu, Speed or Enke.