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2,500 players ask for help with mental health… young stars reach out for PFA’s support

The pressures on young footballers in Britain have been laid bare after it emerged that almost 2,500 players have sought professional help with their mental health since 2018 alone.

A total of 2,434 professional footballers in the UK accepted the PFA’s offer to provide them with therapeutic support in the past four and half years, the Mail on Sunday has learned.

It can also be revealed that the number of young players seeking expert help for their mental health is increasing, with the Professional Footballers’ Association partly attributing the trend to pandemic-related issues. The players’ union said the instances of players approaching their counseling team as victims of abuse were also increasing.

The PFA has confirmed the number of abuse victims and young stars reaching out to them for mental health support has increased (pictured: PFA CEO Maheta Molango)

The Duke of Cambridge believes the football community has made 'significant strides'

The Duke of Cambridge believes the football community has made ‘significant strides’

The figures have emerged as British football authorities were preparing a report on the work being done to support the mental health of both those working in the industry and society more broadly.

The Mentally Healthy Football document, which is released on Sunday, includes a foreword from the Duke of Cambridge in his role as president of the FA. The Duke writes that he is confident that the football community has made ‘significant strides’ in this area.

The PFA offer players emotional support through their wellbeing department, which is run by director of player welfare Dr Michael Bennett, a former professional with Wimbledon and Charlton.

Bennett’s team visit clubs to conduct workshops on the subject of mental health and give them the opportunity to fill out a survey which includes questions on their personal wellbeing.

Bennett told the Mail on Sunday that ’99 per cent’ of players complete the form. His team of him then confidentially approach those who are thought to be at medium-to-high risk, offering them therapeutic support.

His team have visited 60 clubs this season and hope to reach 75 before the end of the campaign. They have carried out ‘hundreds’ of the ‘interventions’ notifying players that they might need help.

So far in 2022, 307 players have chosen to access the PFA’s emotional support network. The equivalent figure in 2021 was 528 players, in 2020 it was 508 (even though lockdowns limited the number of workshops), the 2019 total was 653 and 2018’s 438.

‘The workshops have been delivered to Under 18s, Under 23s and first-team players, as well as WSL clubs,’ said Bennett. ‘It address different areas relating to their wellbeing: how have you felt in the last three months? Have you been agitated? Sleeping problems, gambling problems, anything like that.

‘Usually, from a squad of 20 to 25 players, we get two or three coming forward for some sort of therapeutic support. Some players come to us later on, when they have plucked up the courage to do it. Others come forward for support from other departments: community, education or coaching. The uptake is there. It’s quite positive.’

The Alumni Player Voice was set up after Jeremy Wisten killed himself in October 2020

The Alumni Player Voice was set up after Jeremy Wisten killed himself in October 2020

Bennett said young players find it difficult to cope with the old-school, arguably abrasive approach of some coaches. Increasing numbers are also having to contend with online abuse. He said the number of them seeking help was increasing also because young footballers are more prepared to seek counseling than their predecessors.

‘In the last year to 18 months, the uptake of younger players up to the Under 21s has grown,’ said Bennett.

‘That’s been the highest uptake. We speak to them about the emotional rollercoaster in football and the industry hazards. Long-term injury, being away from the family, finances, marriages, having children, moving around the country, and we then recognize it’s important for them to be able to talk about how they’re feeling.

‘They find it difficult to speak to the club because they’re concerned that it could work against them. And they sometimes don’t want to worry or burden their family.’

The Mentally Healthy Football report, which was also produced in collaboration with the Premier League and Football League, further details the work of an initiative established last June to support apprentices in the game.

The Alumni Player Voice was set up after Jeremy Wisten, the former Manchester City academy player, killed himself in October 2020. An inquest into his death said Wisten, who was released by City in 2018, found it difficult to watch his former team-mates ‘progress.

Tob Sho-Silva, the 27-year-old former England youth international now with Carlisle United, said: ‘I have been involved in all the Alumni Player Voice sessions. If this forum existed when I was a young player, it would have given me insight on how to better handle situations that I was experiencing — or even those which I had not yet experienced.’

The PFA have also set up a support network for members of the LGBT community.

Once a promising England Under-20 international who made his league debut as a 17-year-old at Charlton, Bennett was inspired to retrain as a counselor and psychotherapist after finding the pressures of the game difficult as a young player.

He went from struggling to cope with the considerable expectations on him to suffer a serious knee injury that threatened to derail his career. ‘I want players to know that there is support available to them now that was not there when I was a player,’ he said.

The Mentally Healthy Football is published on the Premier League website at 8am ON Sunday. www.premierleague.com

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