Former Manchester City midfielder Jeff Whitley turned to the PFA Charity for support in 2007 for help with addiction and entered the Sporting Chance clinic for treatment. Now a fully qualified counsellor and a Player Welfare Executive at the PFA, Jeff uses his experiences to support other players who are struggling with addiction and mental health issues. We caught up with Jeff to find out more about his inspirational story.
Jeff, do your experiences help you connect with players?
Yes! When I speak to players, I always tell them about my background and the emotional ups and downs I’ve had in football. We talk about how injuries, team changes and pressure can impact them - as well as other things, like being away from home. It can be difficult because if a player hasn’t had an upbringing where expressing yourself and talking honestly about how you feel is normal, they’re going to find it hard to talk. People shouldn’t feel so scared to say they’re upset or they’re feeling afraid, and I’m hopeful the ‘not showing any emotions’ environment in football is starting to shift.
You’ve been really candid about the challenges you’ve overcome, what do you think is important for people to know about getting well?
I went to rehab because I was dying. I wanted some happiness and some peace in my soul, and I didn’t know how to get it. Some players go to rehab or counselling because their families or managers are giving them grief, and I can tell you that never works. It’s vital that if you make that choice to get help, you do it for yourself. When you come out of treatment, you feel amazing. It’s common for people to stop doing what they’ve learned in there because they feel like they’re cured. It’s really important to remember that rehab is only the foundation of recovery - you have to maintain the progress that you’ve made and that’s when the real work begins.
What signs can indicate a player needs help?
If someone is typically lively and bubbly but becomes really quiet or starts to isolate themselves, something’s wrong. Sometimes it’s not that simple because people can put on good masks. I can relate to that - I would be energised in the dressing room, but people wouldn’t see me crying at home. If you do notice something is up with your teammate, have a conversation and ask them to be honest and tell you if they’re ok. If you’re not sure what to do, you can always go with them to seek help, so at least you’re in it together and they won’t feel alone.
What needs to change about how we approach mental health in football?
Good emotional health is crucial for players, because if your mind isn’t right, how on earth can you perform at your best? I would love to see clubs including a focus on mental health as part of their normal fitness routine. They have lots of physical training, but where does the mind come into it? It would be great to have a mandatory session on mindfulness for players every day, and managers, coaches and backroom staff should take part too - everyone needs to buy into good mental health practices for them to work.
What’s the best way for players to seek help if they’re in need?
We know that current players can be reluctant to talk to someone who is connected to their club. That’s why when we deliver workshops, we make sure players know we’re not affiliated to their clubs, and we don’t care that they play football - we just care about them. We’re here to support all footballers past and present with whatever wellbeing support they need, and they can contact us anonymously anytime using our 24/7 helpline.
If you are struggling with addiction, mental health or any other wellbeing issues, the PFA Charity is here to support you. You can call our 24/7 helpline on 07500 000 777 or contact our Wellbeing department here.