From the cheers and splendour of winning, to the frustration and anger of losing, football is a sport that brings out the extremes of emotions.
These emotions are shared by everyone involved in football regardless of level, and can in instances lead to a greater impact away from the field of play.
Mental health has been an issue which the sport has begun to recognise in recent years and Michael Bennett, Head of Player Welfare at the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), knows too well the consequences of not dealing with any potential problems.
Michael had played for England at youth level before a serious knee injury curtailed his promising career, eventually having to hang up his boots at the age of 29. Reflecting on the time of his injury, Michael admits the lack of understanding around mental health prevented him from speaking out.
“I sustained a really bad injury in 1991 and there was concerns about whether I would play again.
“I suddenly had all these questions and fears going through my mind and I didn’t have anyone in the game to speak to about it. I wish I had someone from a footballing background to discuss the issues I was having.
“Looking back, I feel as though my career didn’t reach the heights it should have reached because I didn’t feel mentally right; I was concerned with getting injured. After my career ended I wanted to come back into football and offer a service which could help players like me.”
The issues of mental health are not only prevalent in the professional levels of the sport.
The grassroots level of the game provides a platform for people to engage in an activity away from their daily lives. According to Manisha Tailor MBE, the lack of resources within the amateur ranks are preventing people from exploring opportunities to develop their mental health.
“From my experience at grassroots and community level, there is a real lack of provision for adults with mental health to participate and engage in sport as a coping mechanism and recovery tool.
“It is extremely difficult for service providers to seek provision for those that they work with given financial constraints and low budget.
“Being a carer now for almost 19 years has allowed us to become familiar with mental health service providers and the challenges involved in caring for someone with mental health.
“What I also recognised is the lack of local sport provision within the area that allows adults with mental health to socialise with others, engage with their carers and keep healthy in a non-pressure environment.”
Both Michael and Manisha now work in the game to raise awareness and improve issues of mental health.
During his time at The PFA, Michael has seen the improvement in mental health awareness since his playing career at the likes of Charlton Athletic and Brentford.
“There was a big taboo around mental health and wellbeing in football and we wanted to break that barrier and provide a supportive place for current and former players to speak about these issues.
“The PFA have a Player Welfare department that was launched in 2012.
“We also worked closely with Sporting Chance clinic for a number of years before launching our own designated department for mental health, with the idea that to look after player welfare and emotional well-being.
“We are acutely aware that players do find it difficult coming forward – so we’ve made our assistance a private and confidential service. There is also a 24-hour helpline if players feel uncomfortable speaking to a councillor directly as well.
“We initially started with 28 councillors and now we have 90, so you can see the importance of this work with players and in football.”
At the community level of the sport, Manisha has launched a Disabled Fans Forum at Ryman Premier League club Wingate and Finchley. Supported by the Fans For Diversity Fund, the project aims to help people with disabilities and mental health issues through the power of football.
“The Forum is an initiative that allows football fans from within the local area, who have a disability, in particular mental health, to come together and enjoy the beautiful game in a safe place where they can simply be themselves and support their local football club,” Manisha began.
“It is designed to promote an active, healthy and independent lifestyle for adults suffering from mental illness. In addition to accessing Wingate home games, adults will be able to take part in weekly football sessions.
“Football can play a vital role in empowering those with mental illness to channel their thoughts and feelings into something positive.”
But can football lead the way about changing the stigma around mental health? Michael certainly believes so.
“I think the game is changing. With mental health issues in the past, it may not have been seen so it wasn’t given the same priority as a physical injury. But our role has been to go into clubs and educate staff and players about this issue.
“It’s about education – so we’re educating the players, the managers and the coaching staff.”
Manisha concurred but stressed the need for all of football to play its part in raising awareness of mental health going into the future.
“I think the intent is most certainly there and clubs do try to make provision, particularly through their education, welfare and psychology departments.
“I do feel there is much work to be done in supporting those with mental health at community and non-league clubs who do not necessarily have the expertise or financial resources to provide such provision for their players.”
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