Mental Health Awareness Week: Mental Health in Modern Football

The two words “mental health” are still a bit of a mystery to the modern world. If you see someone with a graze on their leg, you know what to do with it. If someone tells you that they’re stressed at work? Suck it up, mate.

I’ve had office jobs that made me utterly miserable, breaking my back for very little pay, absolutely no appreciation from my colleagues and no chance at all of progressing . I’d go home and express my unhappiness, but was told to stick it out for the scraps that I was earning.

I don’t know how I’d manage to cope having my every move scrutinised by 40,000 people and the national newspapers that have a penchant for sensationalism and straight up lying. I could never be a footballer, not because I’m a fatass with bad knees, but because I would not have the mental capability to deal with the pressure of being a professional athlete.

Everton winger Aaron Lennon was recently detained under the Mental Health Act, and while it’s dangerous to play this out in public with the aforementioned shit-peddling tabloids, this could be the best thing to happen to the attitudes towards mental health in the game.

An example of the shit-peddling tabloids.

Whereas Aaron Lennon has started his long and bumpy road to recovery, the conversation and support has come too late for František Rajtoral, the Czech defender who was plying his trade in the Turkish top flight for Gaziantepspor.

On the 23rd April, he was found dead in his apartment after committing suicide by hanging.
Typically, and this is not the fault of the staff of Gaziantepspor, no-one at the club had any indication or any idea that František Rajtoral was going to kill himself. Ask anyone with a mental health problem and they’ll tell you the exact same thing:

It’s not easy to talk about.

How many suicides need to happen before people accept that this problem cannot be solved by, as self-confessed macho man Piers Morgan states, “manning up”?

Why did Robert Enke not think of that in 2009 when he was about to throw himself in front of a train? A top flight goalkeeper on the verge of becoming the number 1 goalkeeper for Germany heading into the 2010 World Cup, Robert Enke seemingly had everything going for him.

In 2003 while playing in Turkey for Fenerbahçe, his team suffered a horrendous 3-0 defeat to Istanbulspor. After this game, the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of Robert Enke and he was then pelted with lighters and bottles by his own fans. Three years previous to his death in 2006, he had lost his daughter and it was later revealed had been seeing a psychiatrist for six years due to struggles with depression.

But, you know, “man up”.

Why did Gary Speed not heed this advice in November 2011 when he was about to tie a rope around his neck? A firm fan favourite wherever he played, he made the third highest amount of Premier League appearances (surpassed by only Ryan Giggs and David James at the time of his death) and by all accounts, a true leader in the locker room and all-round hard-working professional.

His venture into management looked very bright, too. He took the Sheffield United job in 2010 and four months later he was named the manager of Wales. During the early days of his spell as Wales manager, they were ranked 117th in the world, a record low for the Welsh team. He led Wales to a ranking of 45th in the world and is frequently credited for laying the foundation of the recent success of the Wales team.

While he was the consummate professional and thoroughly decent guy, he was described by those close to him as a “glass half empty” person whose career was putting a great strain on his marriage. He actually texted his wife raising the possibility of suicide but also stated that he wouldn’t do it. The pressure of leading his country and keeping up a happy marriage became too much for him and he was found hanged in the garage of his home.

But, you know, “man up”.

Of course, not every player who has fought depression has wound up dead. Stan Collymore has been vocal and honest about the struggles in his life (some of them his own fault, by his own admission) but he has always offered his unwavering support and experience to those going through hardships in the game.

You may think he’s a total scumbag, but to give credit where it’s due, he’s normally one of the first to pick up the phone and offer his support. I personally have received much less support from much “nicer” people.

West Brom midfielder Jake Livermore also fought his own battle with both depression and drug use after his son passed away during childbirth. When he tested positive for cocaine use, he was dismissed in the press as a typical playboy footballer thinking he’s above the world, but when the FA scratched the surface, they had determined that he could not cope with the loss of his child and this was his coping mechanism.

Jake Livermore sought help and is enjoying the finest patch of his career while mentoring youth and even fellow professionals, most notably Bournemouth player Harry Arter whose daughter, like Livermore’s son, was stillborn. If Jake Livermore hadn’t reached out to Harry Arter, we may very well have seen another suicide.


It doesn’t matter what level of the game you’re at, you will need help. Gianluigi Buffon is arguably the greatest goalkeeper of our generation, but even he couldn’t bear to drive to training at one point in his career. He sought help, he received help and is continuing to make history between the sticks at both club and international level.

It’s easy for people to look at the modern day footballer and dismiss their struggles, but they’re dismissed out of spite and jealousy. We all say, “Oh, I’d do that job for that money” but we wouldn’t. We would not be able to handle the baggage that comes with being a professional athlete, which is one reason why we are not professionals.

We bemoan the modern day footballer for not being able to empathise with the working man, but that’s a two-way street. There is a total lack of understanding surrounding mental health in general, let alone in professional football, and for people like Piers Morgan to do his bit to undo years of progress and discourse for the sake of retweets sets the game back even further.

The conversation came too late for people like Robert Enke, Gary Speed and František Rajtoral, but it is possible to save lives with a bit of empathy and a willingness to understand.

We have made progress in the game, Jake Livermore on his own is testament to that, and the outpouring of support for Aaron Lennon has been remarkable but there is still more to be done.

After the suicide of Robert Enke, his club Hannover 96 and the German football authorities set up the Robert Enke Foundation, whose mission is to help and assist players struggling with depression, burnout and the pressures of the game (as well as research into children’s heart disease).

The PFA have revealed that more and more players are seeking help for mental issues. In fact, 178 current and ex-pro’s have sought the help of the PFA to help get a control of their problems.

Gary Speed

Following the death of Gary Speed, the PFA set up a union of 100 counsellors for the same reason and have seen the numbers of players using the service increase year in and year out. Since the detention of Aaron Lennon, ex-pro’s such as Paul Gascoigne, Ryan Giggs and Jamie Carragher have spoken and written about their own struggles with stress and depression in the game, and this needs to continue.

With the rise in social media it is easier now more than ever for fans to get to know their heroes, but it’s also easier now more than ever to target players. When you consider that being a troll/professional twat is now a viable career option, the players need protection on the mental side of the game.

The game will be much better as a result of understanding rather than the backwards, pseudo-masculine bullshit that people like Piers Morgan want to peddle.

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