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Mental Health: Fighting a battle on and off the pitch part 3

OUTSTRETCHED ARMS: Supporting football players with mental illnesses, Tony Adams, immortalised in a statue outside Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, has set-up a clinic

PLAYERS ARE not the only people within the game who are being educated about the pitfalls of mental illness and high anxiety levels.

The PFA’s welfare division distributes thousands of business cards, flyers and organise workshops, not only for players, but for medical staff, coaches and management. While commending the efforts of the PFA, Sol Campbell believes more needs to be done by football clubs to prepare young footballers to cope with the pressures they will face. He says:

“Players can hide the symptoms of mental distress until it boils over, and so clubs need to be more vigilant to the difficulties their players experience.”

And so how does the PFA’s welfare division assist players in need? After an initial assessment, an attempt is made to isolate the real issues affecting individuals; be it anxiety, poor self-imagery, depression or gambling. The player is then offered face-to-face counselling, or over the phone, if they prefer. In severe cases, a psychiatrist assesses a player and recommends the best method of regaining emotional and mental balance.

Bangor University, in conjunction with its London and Oxford counterparts, interviewed 11 British players last year, all of whom experienced gambling problems. The study said most of the 11 reported “severe symptoms of depression and anxiety characterised by mixtures of panic, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide”. The report revealed one player as saying:

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Sol Campbell wants more to be done to help those in football with mental health problems

“After gambling binges, after sleeping with prostitutes, you wake up and the reality of the day is dawning on you. You just feel empty and soulless, in a dark hole.

“I was depressed from gambling; my life had become unmanageable and I think my body was just shutting down. I also had suicidal thoughts.”

Professor Robert Rogers of Bangor University, said:

“Our research highlighted several factors which could reduce the risk of footballers becoming addicted to gambling.

“This includes the need for staff and coaches at football clubs to be aware of the influence of peer behaviour, as well as the major influence that senior players’ gambling behaviour has on young players by setting social norms.

“Another important factor to consider is how clubs deal with players that have been dropped from the first team because of injury or form, as well as those players that are out on loan to other clubs, and are frequently more isolated as a result.”

Campbell recommends that young footballers adopt an integrated approach to manage stress levels. He says:

“Because Premier League players earn a lot of money they can be susceptible to various behavioural pitfalls and stresses, which money cannot alleviate.

“In my experience, it is important to use the support systems provided by football clubs and to become involved in charity work with local communities, because these mechanisms can help young players become rounded individuals.

“But I would also advise players to surround themselves with well-meaning family members and friends. This can help footballers to see the signs of mental distress and have the courage to talk about it before it becomes a serious problem.”

However Canoville believes some players will more freely discuss matters with a stranger over the phone or a counsellor.

The PFA is not the only organisation addressing the issues within the sport of professional football. Former players who struggled with various addictions and mental issues are also trying to assist. Tony Adams launched the Sporting Chance clinic in 2000, following his recovery from alcoholism. Adams saw the need for a dedicated environment where sportspeople could address and manage their mental health issues. The clinic provides residential treatment and education for footballers and has cared for former Port Vale and Crewe Alexandra midfielder Gary Roberts and Joey Barton.

“Sporting Chance is absolutely up there with all the medals I’ve ever won, the England cap and everything,” says Adams.

“I’m very proud of what I created here.”

To read part 1 of this piece, click here.

To read part 2 of this piece, click here.

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