Now and Then: Mental Health with Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett is the Director of Player Welfare at the PFA and spends his days offering emotional support to both current and former players. Starting the department in 2012, Michael noticed the unequal attention clubs paid to a player’s physical and mental health, and saw a chance to balance that out. In October 2018, Michael delivered a mental health and wellbeing workshop to 60 international delegates at FIFPro’s Amsterdam symposium, and now his ideas are being implemented globally. 

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we caught up with Michael to see how views about mental health have changed in the sport. 

Michael, tell us why the PFA started to focus on Mental Health. 

Working in the PFA’s education department, I realised there were a lot of mental health issues arising when players were transitioning out of the game. I started working on a project with Simone Pound – we wanted to showcase what mental health looked like from a football context. We could see the importance of making members aware of the ways the sport can impact your mental health.  

We did a bit of research with players and looked at case studies, putting together a guidebook that was in a cartoon format, which showed what anxiety, depression, anger and stress looked like in a football framework.  We included stories about prominent players who had spoken about their mental health issues, and we highlighted where to go if individuals felt they needed support.  

How did that develop into the Player Welfare department?

The guidebook was a huge success but we didn’t want to focus on mental health awareness without having the proper support being in place if players came forward. We’ve had a partnership with Sporting Chance since 2002, and they agreed to let us utilise their network of 28 counsellors around the country to support players who contacted us with problems. 

The guidebook came out around the same time as the shocking death of Gary Speed, and then Clarke Carlisle spoke about his own experiences with mental health in a documentary. We had a number of people offering their support afterward, and we were able to grow our network from 28 counsellors to over 200+ today.  At this point, I spoke to Gordon Taylor and asked to establish a department specifically to focus on the emotional wellbeing of our members, and he agreed.

How have things changed since you were a player?

I had a major injury as a player and after 5 months of recovery, was told it wasn’t getting any better, and I would have to retire. There wasn’t any support available at the time or anyone to talk to about how I was feeling. Now, we don’t want players to suffer in silence, and we work hard to support them in situations like these, or with anything else that impacts their wellbeing. 

What role has the PFA played in driving the mental health conversation forward in football?

I think the PFA have been massive in shaping the mental health agenda in football.  Working with Sporting Chance, we have created a support service for players to access, and now you can see that players are becoming more comfortable talking about their mental health and wellbeing in the public domain. We’ve also provided a private and confidential platform in the form of a 24/7 counselling helpline, which has made it easier for players to come forward. Quite often, I get interested parties from other sports asking how we’ve achieved these things, and I think that’s because we were forward thinking and ahead of the game.

What are the next steps for your department?

I feel strongly that our work has to be player-led and we’re already asking the players what they want, so we can implement that. We’re focused on making it easier for players in need to access the service. We’re running workshops in every single professional club in the country so that every player knows what support is available to them. I always say if you pulled your hamstring, you would go to your physiotherapist straight away for treatment. So, if you experience a mental health issue, we want you to come and seek support as well - because they’re both injuries. We’re working hard to break down the mental health stigma in football because, ultimately, we’re their union, and we’re here to help.

We’re here to help

If you feel you might benefit from talking to us, the PFA provides a 24/7 counselling telephone helpline. This 'round-the-clock' support is available to all members past and present.

All services are private and confidential, PFA members (or concerned friends and family) can contact the PFA: