sports gazette

The state of football's mental health

Published: 5 May 2017

Ahead of mental health awareness week, the news of Aaron Lennon being treated for an unspecified stress related mental illness has got everyone talking about mental health in sport. Sports Gazette talks to his former teammate and Mental Health ambassador Clarke Carlisle.

Carlisle believes his former Leeds United teammate has many years ahead of him as a footballer, but first he must take the necessary time to find the right recovery process and rehabilitation.

Back in February of this year, he spoke candidly about the state of mental health within football and has grave concerns unless changes are made.

"Football is such a reactionary juggernaut that it will take the suicide of a current high profile professional until those running the game stand up and make the necessary changes."

“I don’t think footballers are ever allowed to assess themselves or establish their worth as human beings outside of football," says Carlisle.

"Their whole value or worth to society is inextricably linked to the game, and that’s established at a young age.  "From a young age, players need to be taught to develop an understanding of the whole self not just one particular skill that may produce a vocation.”

Concerning his career, Carlisle considers the mentally toughest times as those during a long-term injury.

“I was out for almost two years in 2001 with a knee injury. I had just broken into the England under-21’s, all my dreams were coming into realisation and it had an enormous impact on me. So much so that I tried to take my own life with an overdose in a flat in Acton. That’s how difficult I found it.”

“The next time I had a serious injury was with Watford in 2007 when I hurt my hip flexor. We had just been promoted to the Premier League, and it was keeping me out that season; I hadn’t played a single game in the top flight. You can imagine my frustration of achieving a life ambition of making the Premier League and then being kept out of it for eight months due to no fault of your own.

“They are some of the toughest times, especially when it’s a physical injury and you pride yourself on being a physical specimen, a complete mesomorph, the height of fitness, and that stops you from realising your dreams, especially when your worth and value is all linked to achieving that dream.”

The former PFA Chairman went on to discuss the equally challenging relationship between injured players and their managers.

“The sad thing is, it’s understandable when managers ignore injured players because these men are in jobs that are so precariously balanced. In the modern era, the turnover rate for managers is beyond sickening. So if you have someone who cannot help you for three months or more, you are just not going to factor them into what you are doing.

“Injured players are marginalised within the working machinations of the football club, that’s when you talk about a responsibility to the human being, not the asset. Is it really the manager’s responsibility to care for the human being, or should the football club have support mechanisms in place that provide that?

“Because this has never been dictated by the national governing body, or the world governing body, they have never governed on these issues. Unless someone does govern on them and dictates to clubs that ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘B’ has to happen in these scenarios, then it will continually be so.”

Football is such a reactionary juggernaut that it will take the suicide of a current high profile professional until those running the game stand up and make the necessary changes.

Carlisle is fearful of the pitfalls presented to the modern footballer, particularly with regards to mental and emotional health.

“The PFA run life skills and lifestyle management sessions across all football clubs and all ages. They lay out what the pitfalls are, what support services there are (and for what it’s worth the services aren’t adequate) and then players simply leave.

“It is then down to the individual to tap into whatever support services are available to them, and it's incredible how often players will not engage these services, even when confronted with a catastrophic situation – never mind someone who is just teetering at the top of a slope.

“You can put a million things out there, but it's down to the individual to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. This is an industry of human beings, as much as you can hypothetically try to prepare someone for being on £50k a week and under 24/7 scrutiny by the world its very hard to comprehend that when you are a 16, 17 or 18-year-old young man.”

Lennon’s recent sectioning reaffirms Carlisle’s concerns regarding mental health within football. But what steps should be taken going forward to address these shortcomings?

“Concerning a football’s club duty of care, they should have clinically trained staff on their books. Invariably clubs will have optimum performance based psychologists who are not focused on the wellbeing of the individual. They are there usually to advise the manager about someone who is not in the mindset to run through a brick wall for the team. So if they identify that and that person then gets dropped, their actual life emotional psychological and state is in a worse place!

“Athletes will not engage about their emotional state with psychologists within a football club because it could be detrimental to their professional prospects. Hence club's should hire clinical psychologists who do not report into the coaching structure.

“I know players who have displayed mental illness and subsequently had their career prospects hampered. I believe it should be mandatory that every player at every club undergo psychometric and behavioural testing. This isn’t to punish players rather it is to help the football club to understand how to support their players adequately.

“If teams know where their players register on the depressive, OCD and dysfunctional thinking scales they can have a qualified person at the club to monitor those needing help, specifically during periods of long-term injury.

“They can have a qualified structure of extracurricular support to enable identified players to maintain a healthy psychological, emotional life balance and then they can produce their best footballing performances consistently on a Saturday.

"The progress made in football in terms of support, it is always reactionary – you can pin it down to the date and time of specific event. For example, post Fabrice Muamba, we suddenly have heart screenings, pitch side defibrillators etc.

Carlisle’s charity ‘Clarke Carlisle Foundation for Dual Diagnosis’ stages its official launch dinner on the 30 June 2017 at the Imperial War Museum North, for all enquiries contact @CCforDD or ccdd@btinternet.com.

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