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Why professional footballers don’t talk about their mental health

19 January 2017

Professional footballers do not feel it is safe to show vulnerability or admit to experiencing emotional struggles.

That is the conclusion of research being presented today by Dr Susan Wood to the annual conference of our Division of Clinical Psychology in Liverpool.

Dr Wood wanted to understand professional footballers’ experience of mental health difficulties and what might prevent or encourage them to seek help. 

While a handful of footballers have recently opened up about their experience of mental health difficulties, but the prevalence of such problems in this group is likely to be similar to the general population – one in four. 

So Dr Wood undertook in-depth interviews with seven male professional players as part of a research team from Coventry University.

Survival emerged as a strong theme for the footballers interviewed, who described having to struggle and fight to ‘survive’ the challenges of the professional football world, mental health difficulties and also the transition to the ‘real world’. 

The football field was seen as a battlefield, and any signs of vulnerability or weakness felt like threats to their survival. In many of the footballers’ stories, injury, transition and “falling out of love with the game” were precursors to mental health difficulties. 

Shame, stigma, fear and a lack of mental health literacy were prominent barriers to accessing help and support. 

Several players also talked about their use of maladaptive forms of escapism – substance misuse, gambling, alcohol, aggression, women and partying – to try to manage the difficult emotions they experienced. The risk of more permanent escapism through suicide was also expressed as a way out from their difficulties. 

Dr Wood explained:

"The footballers’ described an environment where it did not feel safe to show vulnerability or emotional struggles, fearing that this would lead to a straight ticket out of football. This left them feeling trapped, isolated and ashamed as they attempted to conceal their difficulties behind the bravado and brave face.

The pressures footballers experience are often overlooked behind the money and success of the premier league. With mental health only recently been explored, homophobia an ongoing debate and recent reports of sexual abuse, this is a population that warrants further research and support."

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