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Mental Health: Fighting A Battle On And Off The Pitch Part 2

OPEN: Andrew Cole has shared his tough experiences as a footballer

IN MAY, Everton winger Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act for suffering a "stress-related illness". The incident caused an outpouring of support an emotion, indicating that the awareness of professional footballers who are dealing with mental health challenges is growing.

Speaking to The Voice Michael Bennett, the Professional Football Association’s (PFA) head of welfare, believes that in the past there have been unrealistic expectations of professional footballers. He says:

“Members of the public used to say, ‘Why should they (soccer players) have problems?’ But this is unrealistic. Football players encounter the same issues as everyone else.

“So for people like Clarke Carlisle, Rio Ferdinand – even Prince Harry – to talk about their own experience helps break down that taboo and helps others become more comfortable in being able to open up.”

Sol Campbell, the former Tottenham and England footballer, agrees with Bennett.

“Whether an individual is a footballer or not, mental illness can hit them” he says.

“But this is particularly true in high-level jobs where there are high stress levels.”

SPEAKING OUT: Sol Campbell has lent a voice of support to fellow footballers suffering from mental health issues

Chelsea’s first black player, Paul Canoville, who joined the club in 1981 and underwent rehabilitation for crack cocaine addiction, believes the pressures faced by professional footballers can be crippling. Recalling his own experiences in his award-winning autobiography Black and Blue: How Racism, Drugs and Cancer Almost Destroyed Me, he said:

“The causes of pressures can be varied. They can include personal issues, fitness levels, performing well every week, dealing with your manager, the public or the media.

“The crucial weakness for me was not having anyone to talk to about my pressures, until I had my downfall.”

According to mental health charity MIND, mental health problems affect one in six of the population in England, with many suffering from depression.

Among the ranks of professional footballers in the UK, there is a growing tendency to reach out for professional support to cope with mental and emotional pressures. Figures recently released by the PFA highlight that last year 160 members underwent counselling, of which 62 were current players and 98 former players. During the first five months of 2017, 178 current and former players have already received assistance from PFA counsellors.

AN OPEN BOOK: Former Chelsea star Paul Canovile has shared his struggles through an award-winning book

Bennett believes the PFA’s campaign to breakdown the stigma attached to mental health issues is slowly taking effect. The body has been addressing issues of emotional well-being and addiction for 15 years and now has a 24 hour counselling telephone helpline available to members.

In addition to the helpline, players past and present can access a national network of 90 fully-trained counsellors, who understand the emotional and mental pressures faced by those in the profession. Bennett says:

“The PFA put a player welfare department in place in 2012, because we felt a lot of onus was being placed on the physical aspect of playing football and not enough emphasis on player’s emotional wellbeing, and I think the two go hand in hand.

“We want to make members aware of the services in place, with the hope that the more we can raise awareness, the more people will use the service. I think it is in a sportsperson’s mindset that to talk about being affected by mental health can be perceived as a weakness. We are trying to change that mindset. If you were to twist an ankle or pull a hamstring, you can physically see it and you can treat it. But because mental illness is something you can’t see, it is not viewed the same way.”

Part 3 of this piece will be published tomorrow at 6pm GMT.

To read part 1 of this piece, click here.

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