Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

There are no “off buttons” for players nowadays – QPR team doctor Imtiaz Ahmad on footballers’ mental health

Posted on 22 May 2020 by Tusdiq Din

Support for footballers mental health has never been more critical. Cases of players suffering from mental health illness have become more prevalent in recent years acknowledges Queens Park Rangers Head of Medicine Imtiaz Ahmad, who has seen an increase in the number of players “mentioning some of the difficulties they’ve had.” While the issue is not new to the game, clubs are now better equipped to deal with player mental health welfare.

“I think it has probably always gone on and now again there has been more attention to it after some of the high profile cases mentioning some of the problems they’ve had. It’s a difficult environment. Football is very challenging, they’re competing at high level, there are a lot of pressures when they’re within a club. The pressures to perform on matchday, them being talked about quite a lot in terms of social media. There are no off buttons for players nowadays and we’re aware of that so we do provide support for them.”

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Ahmad (r) has seen an increase in players suffering with mental health concerns 

On loan Newcastle United defender Danny Rose, Burnley’s Aaron Lennon as well as former Professional Footballers Association chairman Clarke Carlisle are among current and former footballers who have spoken openly about their mental health battles on and off the pitch. Clubs have noticed an upward trend and have put plans into action to recognise the early onset of mental health concerns, and the trigger points.

Ahmad believes that recognising the beginning of players mental health illness is a collective responsibility, where players may voice initial concerns to non-medical staff which then should be passed on. If they can talk to each other they can start talking and share their problems and not just the problems, but how they are affecting them.

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Newcastle’s on loan defender Danny Rose (c) has spoken about mental health issues in football

“In terms of mental health, we are quite used to picking up early aspects of mental health. How is it affecting their mood ? Are they becoming more irritable? Are they becoming more withdrawn from how they normally are ? Is it affecting their appetite? Are they losing weight because of it? Is it affecting their sleep ? How is their concentration ? That’s the kind of thing we’d look at.

“But most people who are good communicators will be able to pick up some of the signs if they already have that policy of talking to their colleagues and friends. If you have the culture right and the environment right within your club, again that can provide support to them during the time with you because they do spend a lot of time here with us and the support that’s around them is really important.”

Ahmad is well versed in player mental wellbeing. He added to his CV with an Advanced Diploma in Primary Care Mental health where the focus was particularly on football, to improve his knowledge base in sportsmen and athletes to make sure that he is in the right place to pick up their signs and symptoms. He has placed himself at the heart of the players environment where he is always available to discuss any matter.

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Aaron Lennon is among footballers to have suffered with mental health illness

“I believe when you are looking at an area whether it’s an area like mental health, player welfare, player protection, child protection, I don’t think it should be just one corner of a club. I don’t think you should just put a door on and say, ’look, that’s the psychologists room or that’s the mental health room,’ I think the skill base should be improved throughout clubs,.

“If you create a good enough environment then people are then more open to talk, whether it’s talking to colleagues, whether it’s talking to staff, and it might not be medical staff it might be talking to the person they’re closest to, which may be one of the coaches. It might be someone from the therapies department, it might be the kit-man, it might be someone they talk to a lot, and if they then recognise there is something going on, they can pick up any early warning signs they could then sign post them towards myself as a medic.”

Mental health concerns can manifest themselves at any time and in any circumstance. In the case of footballers, Ahmad accepts that it may stem from concerns away from the pitch. Once that has been recognised then a recovery plan can then be actioned.

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Ahmad has an open door policy for players wishing to discuss player welfare concerns

“Our players have got high ability. They’ve reached it to a level where they’re playing at an elite standard so it’s not usually due to ability issues, it’s usually due to surrounding factors, social factors, psychological factors, that’s where if you’ve got that environment within a club to help support that, that can be really beneficial.”

“Once you have a diagnosis, you can then deal with it, whether it’s an injury or mental health issues, so you could then start bringing in counsellors. The PFA do a really good job, they’re very approachable, [Director of Player Welfare] Michael Bennett from the PFA does really excellent work in mental health in footballers, the players know they can access that service. It’s online as well. It is a good service and they respond to any issues if they’re required.”

Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 18-24 May 2020.