PFA mental health support on the increase

Chelsea Women huddle after final whistle

The number of current players asking the Professional Footballers' Association for help with mental health issues rose by more than 500% between 2016 and 2018.

According to the latest PFA statistics released via the Press Association, 438 current and former professionals accessed therapy through its network of counsellors and psychotherapists in 2018.

That was 35 more than in 2017 but represented an increase of 278 compared to 2016 - a 174% increase in the overall figures.

The latest PFA statistics show 438 current and former professionals accessed therapy through its network of counsellors and psychotherapists in 2018.
Statistics on the number of professional footballers accessing counselling services in the last three years

But the rise is even more marked for current players, as there used to be a 70/30 split in favour of ex-professionals when it came to asking for help.

The union's head of welfare Michael Bennett said that split had now reversed, which suggests more than 300 of the 2018 total were current players, up from fewer than 50 in 2016.

"It's really swung the other way now. Once you would never have wanted to show any weakness as a player but they now realise it's not weak to talk about things," said Bennett.

"The issues have always been there - dealing with injuries, transition in and out of the game, going on loan and feeling isolated, foreign players being lonely and so on, and then you have problems related to money worries or addiction.

"But they have perhaps been a little bit under the radar and too many people have suffered in silence in the past. Now, I hope, people realise you can ask for help and help is available."

Bennett believes there are two significant factors behind the huge increase in the number of players seeking counselling: high-profile players have spoken about their problems and the PFA has got better at publicising what help is available, via club visits, workshops and its second mental health and well-being conference at St George's Park in October 2018.

Michael Bennett
PFA head of player welfare, Michael Bennett speaking at the PFA's Injured Conference in 2018. 

A former England youth international, Bennett knows only too well that most players will endure physical injuries at some point and they are usually visible and easy to diagnose. Some players, however, can seem healthy while struggling with anxiety or depression.

Now 49, Bennett sustained a serious knee injury when he was breaking through at Charlton and, while he did eventually return to play, the mental stress caused by the injury forced him to retire at 29.

Having retrained as a counsellor and psychotherapist, Bennett has run the PFA's player welfare department since 2011, setting up a network of 150 counsellors and launching the union's 24-hour helpline.

Last week, Prince William, the Football Association's president, accused clubs of not doing enough to support players emotionally, particularly young players who fail to make the grade.

Bennett agrees football could and should do more but stresses there is much more awareness now, both in terms of the problems and the solutions, than even a few years ago. But there are also new concerns.

"It used to be betting shops and card schools but now it's virtual casinos and gambling on your phone," he said.

"It's everywhere now and it can get out of hand quite quickly. Everyone thinks young players are on £5,000 a week, so it doesn't matter, but it's more like £500 a week in Leagues One and Two and they can get in trouble because they are not millionaires.

"You only have to tick a box to say you're 18 and away you go. It doesn't seem like real money and it's a big issue. We are doing a lot of work on this with Sporting Chance and (problem-gambling experts) EPIC."

Another rising problem is anxiety related to body image. This can be former players struggling to deal with the fact they are no longer in peak condition or current players worried they are not as muscular as others.

Chris Kirkland
Chris Kirkland has spoken out about the problems he encountered.

"You get a lot of banter in football and that doesn't help," he said.

"I often joke it's all Cristiano Ronaldo's fault. He is always posing with his top off and young players see it and want those abs, too. Some have it naturally, some will never get it no matter how many sit-ups they do."

But overall, Bennett is positive about the fact that more players are seeking and receiving help.

"When PFA members like Clarke Carlisle, Chris Kirkland, Steven Caulker and Gemma Bonner have bravely spoken about their issues, it just makes it more acceptable," he said.