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Football and Mental Health: The Players

A look at how football can affect a players mental health

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So often in football we forget that the people on the pitch are...well people. People with families, emotions and the same personal foibles as the rest of us. Yet so often they are not treated as people. Clubs treat them as commodities. Some potential partners see them as a status symbol. And some fans treat them as not being human at all. There have been a few high profile suicide attempts in football and that's why fans should have a better understanding of what the people on the pitch feel and go through.

It sounds hard to fathom that someone wouldn't want to be a 20 something pro-football player with bags of cash, scores of beautiful women throwing themselves at you and all cars, clothes and houses that others can only dream of. The reality for many players though is that it is a lonely and isolated life. Players move around the country every couple of years losing the friends they have made and any roots in the community they lived in. Often their family can stay in one place while the player moves; in some cases it can be a whole other country. They also cannot interact with the rest of the public as we all would. If they wanted to go down to the pub for a drink for example, they might have abuse hurled at them, they might get mobbed by drunken fans after a fight or they might get criticised for being out after a less than stellar performance 2 weeks ago. Any silly mistake they make in the public eye will be snapped, tweeted and sold. Faux outrage and faux apologies follow for daring to be human and have a life outside of football. Safer to not go out then. Just stay in. Perhaps a night out? No. Same problem, plus the added issue of those playing with your emotions purely to 'bag a footballer.

Some player do not even have the dressing room friendships to rely on. Thomas Hitzlsperger noted of his dressing room:

"Towards the end of my career when my private life became more and more important, I got that loneliness feeling," he said.

"There were times when I thought I would like to speak to someone but I can't. Of course I am not talking to my team-mates - we talk about football, we don't talk about private matters."

It can be seen how in this one example how easy it is to end up to be isolated and lonely. There is research that concludes that loneliness is a key risk factor in developing depression .One Guardian article phrased it the best:

"Depression is a disease of Loneliness'

There is also evidence that those who consider themselves to be lonely are more likely to commit suicide. And while I want to maintain a mental health focus, it's important to see how mental health and physical health are linked. There are studies to suggest that those who are depressed and/or lonely are more likely to have high blood pressure, A depressed immune system and possibly a higher risk of cancer.

Then you have the more common problem of anxiety. It is a common problem in football with huge pressure on players to perform and thousands of people expecting the best. This can affect performance more than people think: Strikers in particular have said how a couple of games without a goal can destroy all confidence which then becomes a vicious cycle (This is why the impact of booing a player is a counter productive thing to do). Former Manchester United and England player, Andy Cole spoke candidly of his experience with anxiety:

"I had my own torture chamber. It was my bedroom. Every day I would return from training, quickly smuggle myself in through the front door, and get to that private sanctuary as fast as possible. Then I would stay there, locked in with my own very confused thoughts. I felt isolated and a little desperate, persecuted as well, and I had to overcome all those messed-up emotions. It wasn't easy and it took time. Probably eighteen months followed before I had truly come to terms with life at United and I wouldn't want to go through such an ordeal again".

There is also well documented cases on the affect of leaving football once player's retire. Players go from a very insular world with a strong sense of camaraderie to a world they've never really experienced. They loose contact with friends and a sense of purpose. This is a similar problem that is experienced by those who leave the armed forces after years of service with a suicide every 2 weeks on average. One study in footballers found that when a player retires, his chances of getting clinical depression go up 40%.

It is so easy to think that because players our living most of our dreams that they have a perfect life. But they are at the end of the day, human. Just as fragile and prone to illness; be it mental or physical, than the rest of us. They deserve our support, through the good times and the bad.