The PFA have recorded a huge increase in the number of calls they are receiving from footballers struggling with mental health problems — a sign that the stigma attached to them may be disappearing.
In the first four months of 2019, the players’ union received 355 requests for help, a tally which, if maintained, would see them offer counselling to 1,000 people by the end of the year.
The figure will dwarf the 438 PFA members who were offered therapy last year through the Sporting Chance Clinic’s network of counsellors and psychotherapists.
The union said that the rise reflected an increasing awareness that help was at hand, after players including Aaron Lennon, Danny Rose and Chris Kirkland spoke out, insisting that no player should suffer in silence.
Jeff Whitley, a member of the PFA’s welfare team, said gambling was the biggest issue for young players. The union is also hearing of some becoming addicted to gaming as a way of blocking out reality.
‘You can lose yourself in gaming, trying to change the way you are feeling,’ said Whitley, the former Manchester City and Sunderland player whose own career was ruined by addiction.
‘If you’re up all hours at a computer and then have to impress in training the next day, it isn’t going to happen.’
But the majority of calls are from players struggling with the unyielding environment in which social media takes abuse to new levels. ‘We have players who are injured and can’t see a way back, who are out of the team or have fallen out with a club or manager,’ Whitley said. ‘Then players find people dishing out abuse on social media, telling them they’re failures. The game has never been more scrutinised.
‘Some are able to deal with the ups and downs and emotions. Others are not. People seem to think that because some players are paid a lot of money, they ought to be able to cope, but it doesn’t work that way.’
The Duke of Cambridge led the launch yesterday of an FA joint initiative with mental health charity Heads Together, called Heads Up. FA chief executive Martin Glenn said the aim was to ‘use the power and popularity of football to drive awareness and change’. It will run from the Community Shield in August to the 2020 FA Cup final, which may be referred to as the Heads Up FA Cup final.
The PFA’s figures are rising exponentially. In 2017, 403 members — 393 men and 10 women — rang a 24-hour PFA helpline run by Sporting Chance, the clinic co-founded by Tony Adams in 2000. In 2016, 160 — all men — did so. In the past, most calls came from ex-players, but around 300 of the 438 calls last year were from those still playing.
Lennon has been an articulate contributor to his club Burnley’s project to improve mental health provision among young people. He told Sportsmail in March he was now looking for signs that team-mates might be heading into the bleakness he has known.
‘They might start separating themselves and start acting out of character,’ Lennon said. ‘But it is difficult to spot. To other people you could seem fine.’
Whitley said players had more trust in the help being offered. In the past, there had been a fear confidential discussions of mental health would get back to their club and be viewed as a weakness.
‘Players are seeing people coming into their clubs and encouraging them not to suffer in silence. There is more chance now that if they need the support, they will get it.’
Players seeking help can email [email protected]Daily Mail