There has been an increase of more than 200% in professional footballers seeking help for mental health and emotional wellbeing issues, i can reveal.
Last year, more than three times the amount of players reaching out were recorded by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) than in 2015 and 2016. The number of former players requiring support has also doubled.
In 2017, mental health and emotional wellbeing issues made up 63 per cent of all calls made to the PFA’s 24-hour counselling helpline, according to figures obtained by i.
A new government action plan was announced last month to stop professional athletes reaching a crisis point with their mental health, which includes providing extra training to spot signs of mental health for coaches and support staff.
Last May, former Everton winger Aaron Lennon received treatment for a stress-related illness after being detained by police under the Mental Health Act and taken to hospital. The new proposal, led by sports minister Tracey Crouch, aims to ensure that all elite sports have a clear mental health strategy by 2024.
In football, addiction problems have decreased as a percentage of the total of those needed help, but still make up more than a third of the calls the helpline receives.
Drink, drugs, gambling, sex, porn, social media
Jeff Whitley, former Manchester City, Sunderland and Northern Ireland midfielder, works for the Sporting Chance Clinic and gives talks, assesses and counsels players from all 92 professional clubs on behalf of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
He has seen addiction to social media and gaming increase but a particularly sharp rise in those seeking help for gambling problems. It was revealed in January that gaming addiction would be recognised as a mental health condition by the World Health Organisation for the first time.
‘The drinking’s probably subsided a little bit but the gambling has soared,’ Whitley, who is a recovering alcoholic who has struggled with gambling and drugs, told i. ‘When I visit clubs I talk about drink, drugs, gambling, sex, porn, social media. They’re all highly addictive. If you’re on social media until four o’clock in the morning, then you’re going into training, every day, it’s a problem. Especially for the younger lads. They’ll be on all sorts: Tinder, Snapchat, Twitter. They won’t have any tools other than their phone. Gaming is frightening. That’s growing.’
Tony Adams’ role
Whitley and his colleagues will assess players, coaches and managers who need help and the PFA offer their members six free counselling sessions with Sporting Chance if needed. More can also be requested. Sporting Chance have a network of professionals all over the country who can help footballers facing problems.
Whitley added: ‘I go to the clubs and I’ll give a seminar to 18s to 23s,’ Whitley, the organisation’s head of education, says. ‘We have had some clubs asking us to do their first team. We’re contracted to the 18s to 23s. I will talk about how sporting chance was formed.
‘How Tony Adams got to that point of starting Sporting Chance. I give a background of his story and the process he went through to get it going. What he wanted: a safe environment for sports men and women to receive counselling. ‘Then I will go into what Sporting Chance offers. Most players are PFA members. It’s available to them today, tomorrow, five years time, 10 years time, we’ve had former players in their 70s access the services. They’re a PFA member for life.’