Depression in football: The not so beautiful game

For many people, footballers seem to have it all but there is a dark world of mental health problems that is casting a shadow over the 'beautiful game'.

Depression in football: The not so beautiful game
Fans unite in times of adversity | Photo: Getty Images/Andrew Powell

Football, the beautiful game. The sport which is played by millions and brings together strangers in moments of jubilation and sheer despair. 

Modern football is now played by egotistical money grabbers who value their pay cheque more than the badge on the front of their shirt, right?

No, behind the Rolexes and Ferraris are very ordinary people. Yes, they earn more in a week than any of us are likely to make in a year, but they are still human.

Footballers suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts have become more and more prominent in the past decade.

Football is a game that can provide monumental highs but on the flip side cause devastating lows and, as a footballer, every move is watched and analysed and the lows can prove catastrophic.

Taboo subject

In everyday society, men's mental health issues are slowly becoming acknowledged as a serious problem. There is still a stigma surrounding the topic, but no matter how it is viewed there is not hiding from the facts. 

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

For years there has been an archaic view of men's mental health, often viewed as a weakness. There is a huge proportion of people who see the illness as a frailty and something that sufferers should just 'get over'. 

Football has always been viewed as the working man's game. A sport which is accessible to the 'normal' man. With that, unfortunately comes dated views and ways of thinking. 

Football brings out the tribal nature of men, an aggressive instinct for many. However, for someone who may be suffering from a mental health illness, this is a world which is not approachable to open up to. 

This leaves footballers forced to hide their thoughts, keeping them locked up to themselves.

Keeping dark thoughts has been proved to be the worst thing that a person suffering from mental health problems can do. However, in a world such as football which does not understand the illness, how can we expect them to open up?

Depression and similar mental illnesses should be viewed exactly the same as a physical injury. A player wouldn't be expected to 'man up' if they fractured their leg and they shouldn't be expected to 'get on' with a mental health problem. 

Governing bodies' responsibilities

Football governing bodies such as the FA and PFA have a duty of care for every player in the English game. Yet they are often blamed by professionals for not providing substantial support for those suffering from mental health issues. 

Clarke Carlisle, now a retired footballer and former PFA Chairman has been at the forefront for a campaign in bringing more knowledge and support for footballers suffering from the illness. 

He has raised the fact that there is a clear lack of understanding surrounding the topic from the highest point of the footballing hierarchy. 

With cases such as Gary Speed's suicide in 2011 and Carlisle's own suicide attempts there is clearly a severe lack of options out there for footballers who have slipped into the hole that is depression. 

There has been much uproar surrounding the lack of support from the PFA in recent years. With former PFA representative Steve Harper leading the way, he believes they severely lack in assisting professionals planning for a life in and after their footballing career.

A huge increase has been seen in young players breaking through in recent years, and with this comes a huge responsibility for them to mature into the world of football as they are welcomed by new social responsibilities and six-figure pay cheques. 

After retirement, former players are left with a huge void in their life that their footballing career has left. For many football is all they know, it was their only plan in life and for that to be taken away it can leave them feeling they lack a purpose in life - without a plan for their future. 

Carlisle believes there should be much more support for professionals who are suffering, whether that be from the loneliness of injury, monetary problems or the looming thought of retirement. 

Social media

We live in a period where social media rules all. A huge portion of today's society runs through social media and in the world of football, these platforms provide fans the ability to connect with the seemingly out-of-reach superstars that they watch for 90 minutes a week. 

With thousands of followers, sometimes even millions, social media can prove a dangerous place for footballers. So easily accessible to reach by posting a message of hate, it is quite easy to see how this could tip a footballer over the edge and into the dark world of depression. 

The 'beautiful game' of football can provide moments of absolute euphoria. However, it can also provide moments of tragic lows for players on the other end of the result. 

In today's game, the way in which people express their views is through their social media. Only a click away, players can receive sickening abuse from mindless 'fans' who maybe do not think of the effects their posts may have on the specific recipient.  

The future

Only a matter of months ago, Everton midfielder Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act as he was found on the side of a busy road. 

Since the shocking death of Gary Speed, Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke and the suicide attempts by Clarke Carlisle it would be expected that the necessary action would have been implemented by the football governing bodies.

However, after Aaron Lennon's stress related issue this would leave question marks around what has actually been done.

What is clear is that there needs to be more than just a reactive procedure brought into action. Although a hotline could save lives, it is not solving the bigger problem.

In order to try and prevent footballers suffering from mental health illnesses, the governing bodies need to introduce methods of training that can make a player ready to face a life in the public eye, how to deal with the lows that football can bring and help footballers plan for their life after their career ends.