Your heroes are human: On FIFPro's mental illness study

Shaun Botterill

According to a new study from FIFPro, footballers suffer from a high rate of mental illness. It's a sobering reminder that they are just like everyone else.

The human body, no matter how intensely trained, remains a mesh of skin, sinew and bone. Every element is easily torn and broken, and although modern science is increasingly able to mend them, the unpredictability and weakness of the body will forever limit athletic prowess. The constraints of the body on professional sports is well known. Injuries are documented and diagnosed as part of the media cycle, rehabilitation tracked by eagle-eyed reporters, recovery met with fanatical glee. The health of athletes is one of the most closely-monitored aspects of modern sports. Until the mind gets involved, at any rate.

The results of a recent FIFPro study on mental illness in professional football were not shocking. They do, however, bring to light many issues that the sporting community has been acutely aware of but has refused to acknowledge. Stories of depression have been almost aggressively ignored despite the obvious signs of a deep-seated problem. The heartbreaking death of Robert Enke, who killed himself at 32, failed to rouse the footballing community; we should not be surprised that the less tragic cases of mental illness in professional players have also been glossed over.

FIFPro's study was successful in thanks to the participation and collaboration of the the Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), the Professional Footballers' Association of Ireland (PFAI), the Vereniging van Contractspelers (VVCS), the New Zealand Professional Footballers' Association (NZPFA), the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Scotland, and the Major League Soccer Players Union (MLSPU). More than 300 current and former professional footballers were studied in terms of severe psychological and physical stressors -- severe injuries, surgeries and life events. The measurement for mental illness included distress, burnout, anxiety and depression, low self esteem, alcohol usage, smoking and nutrition.

Out of the 300-plus players who participated, 180 were active. One out of four suffer from anxiety or depression as well as bad nutritional habits. Furthermore, while few players reported that they were burned out or had low self confidence, nearly one in five of the players admitted that they had "adverse alcohol behaviors." The retired group shows even more distressing figures. Two-thirds of them had played at the highest level; 42 percent admitted to some sort of problem with mental health.

Where one in four of the active players suffered from anxiety or depression, the number increases to two in five for former players. Distress and burnout takes a meteoric rise to up to 20 percent for the former players with an uncomfortable 30 percent of those players having adverse alcohol behaviors. In comparison with the general public in working populations, up to 25 percent of individuals in those countries reported mental health issues, 17 percent lower than retired footballers.

This shows that life after football is not at all as rosy as we have come to believe. Quite the opposite, it seems that footballers have a hard time adjusting to everyday life after leaving the sport they love. This could be due to the lack of discipline that comes after retirement: former players are no longer fitted into a schedule according to team practices and other occasions. The loss of comradeship that comes with being on a team, the physical exercise of athletic life -- exercise has been shown to boost mood -- and in general, the loss of doing what you've done for most of your life.

The transition from athlete to everyday human being seems to be an extremely difficult one. With the limited attention that is also given to mental health in football and general society, former players seem to find solace in drinking, smoking and bad eating habits in order to cope with crippling depression and anxiety. It is a testament to how players are treated by not only the teams, but the fans, as well. While some retired players do find post-football work as managers, coaches and front office workers, the vast majority do not and are forgotten save for a few obscure pictures by eager fans or tabloids. There is almost no help for or attention paid to the lives of these players after football. Once they're used up and replaced with a newer model, they're basically discarded and forgotten.

But spare a thought for the active player, as well. While the public tends to view footballers as having it all -- money, women and essentially living their dream -- the study shows that these athletes suffer at the same rate as the general public in terms of depression and anxiety. The superficial aspect of their lives in essence does nothing to change the suffering that they may endure. It is an embodiment of the cliche that money can't buy happiness, but because of their choice of life and the exposure that comes with it, their own unhappiness is often too readily dismissed by those on the outside. It is a cruel thing to use status to dehumanize these players, and it commits a terrible injustice against their mental anguish and the lack of support that they receive.

At the end of the day, these players who are paid handsomely are still human. They suffer from the same issues that rest of us do, and because of the nature of the sport, and the toll that it takes on the body, they often suffer severe mental and emotional distress. While there have been miraculous advancements made in the healing of the physical body, still the ailments of the conscious is ignored, leaving these players suffering in silence.

It is brutally unfair to not see footballers as humans first. Clubs should offer the help needed for them to cope with mental illness, both while they're active and also when they're transitioning away from the sport once they're retired.

Fans should have a little more understanding, as well. If nothing else, the FIFPro study shows that players, the heroes and villains on one of the most public stages on the planet, are just as mortal as you and me.

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