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Aaron Lennon's hospitalization is an opportunity for soccer to get serious about mental health

The Everton winger isn’t alone. It’s time to make sure all footballers know they have the support they need.

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Everton v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s been heartening to see so much support for Aaron Lennon since he was detained under section 136 of the U.K.’s Mental Health Act, including from his club, Everton.

Many players, retired and active, have not only wished him the best but have also come forward with their own stories. The mission seems straight forward: To destroy the stigma surrounding mental illness in the sport and to create an environment where players can feel empowered to seek help and safe enough to relate their struggles to the public.

Ryan Giggs and Jamie Carragher were two surprising retirees to write about their struggles with the pressure of being professional sportsmen in relation to Lennon’s situation. Giggs wrote that he never actually enjoyed the games that he played in. The expectation to always win at Manchester United was so great that it brought about anxiety. He then wrote about the hardships that he faced in transitioning from the athletic life to a normal member of society:

“My whole life had been mapped out during my 28 years at United. From my schooling and then my life as a player, week after week, year after year, even the close-season summers. Then finally I had never been busier than the last two years as a coach under Louis Van Gaal. I am grateful for everything the game gave me but I also realised that my career was ending at the age that a lot of people outside football achieve seniority and success in their own lives.”

Carragher echoed Giggs’ thoughts on being unable to enjoy the game that he gave his life to. For him, it didn’t matter how many good things that he did, or how much his team won, his mistakes haunted him:

“Anger and bad experiences used to fuel my performances, but it was horribly draining,” Carragher wrote. “Even now, in retirement, people talk to me about Istanbul, Champions League adventures and the great days in Cardiff, but I can't clear my head of the bad moments.”

Their experiences aren’t wholly surprising. In 2014, FIFPro released the results of a mental health study that involved 300-plus players, with 180 of those players being active, the rest were retired. One out of every four of the active players admitted to suffering from anxiety or depression. At that time few were feeling burned out or dealing with low self-confidence, though they said that they had adverse alcohol behaviors.

Forty-two percent of the retirees stated that they had some issue with mental health. Two in five of the retired group suffered from the same anxiety and depression. One in five now suffered from distress and burnout, while retaining the bad alcohol tendencies. Both of these groups suffered from mental health issues at a greater rate than the general populace, with the retired players being 17 percent higher than the public.

That study was followed up in October of 2016. This new study involved many of the same players from the previous one. It showed that three-to-nine players in a 25-man squad could show signs of depression, anxiety, and distress during a season and that “37 percent of players who did not report symptoms in 2014, reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the 12-month period of the research, far higher than the 26 percent in the previous research.” Sixty-five percent of the players said that mental disorders had negatively affected their careers and in damning fashion, 84 percent stated that there had not been enough support for such problems during their time as players.

Thankfully, it appears that some progress has been made on chipping away at the stigma against athletes seeking mental health help.

But that doesn’t mean the problem has been solved.

There’s a line in Carragher’s piece that best captures the plight of the footballer in terms of mental illness. He says that his psychologist, Bill, told him: “The normal man on the street thinks, because you are famous, you are an extraordinary person. You're not. You're an ordinary person with an extraordinary talent."

There’s nothing that makes athletes different from regular human beings beyond their ability, in this case, to kick a ball really well. That’s it. It’s tedious to emphasis their humanity because it should be a known quality, yet there seems to be a belief that extraordinary ability and money makes them impervious to human problems, which it absolutely does not.

The studies even show that the consequences of the abilities and fame is a life under more pressure, thus putting the athlete at a greater risk of mental illness. It’s hard to find moments of happiness when life is boiled down to practice, injury prevention/treatment, and then a weekly — sometimes two — performance in front of a roaring audience of thousands of people. Some of whom will dissect your game to pinpoint every success and mistake, and others who will go to great lengths to make sure you are aware of your specific failures. That life under a constant spotlight and scrutiny should mean more sympathy and help, yet for the most part, and for a very long time, it’s been the opposite. Mental illness had been looked at as weakness or deemed practically non-existent.

That is not to say that the money that athletes make doesn’t provide a kind of security that most people never have access to. Athletes don’t have to wake up wondering how they can survive until the next paycheck — unless they make some really bad financial decisions, which is not rare — and they don’t have to deal with the special set of stresses that comes with that life.

But like Carragher and Giggs have attested to, athletes have their own special circumstances that practically makes their individual happiness a luxury. To the point that Giggs says, “I know that with some players, the end of their career has been a relief.”

It’s hard to imagine or even empathize with such a life from the outside, but the fact that it’s the same problems that most of us deal with should be a relatable point. It’s a very important starting place because what has to go first, as we make progress towards being more helpful to athletes who suffer from mental illnesses, is the deifying of the athletic life and the athlete. As Lennon, Giggs, Carragher, and others have shown, there is no mental coat of armor that comes with being great at football or famous. They are just as ordinary as the rest of us. And that’s not a detriment. That’s the springboard to dealing with mental health in football better.