Hospitalisation of Aaron Lennon reminds football chiefs to shift the goalposts for mental welfare
Culture of masculinity leads players to hide their issues from others, says Ian Sinclair
Mental welfare in football is back in the spotlight after a player was hospitalised for a stress-related illness.
Everton midfielder, Aaron Lennon, was detained by police under the Mental Health Act and taken to hospital earlier this month.
In the wake of the incident, England manager Gareth Southgate, who had been giving an address to headteachers at the Boarding School Association’s annual conference, acknowledged the difficulty that male players have in confiding with each other.
“I’ve played with a couple of players who have mental health issues,” he said. “I didn’t understand it fully then as a player, I have a much better understanding of it as a coach.
“Having handled a couple of those players, I’ve spoken to them subsequently and said, ‘I apologise, because I didn’t understand what you were going through’.”
Ian Sinclair, of the New Left Project, highlights the culture of masculinity interwoven in the sport, with players being criticised for perceived weakness.
“The hierarchical and highly competitive world of football is one of the key sites for the construction and reproduction of masculinity today,” he told The New Normal.
“Through playing and watching the game, boys learn what it means to be a man,” he added. “Which values and behaviour are manly and which are unmanly.”
The Division of Clinical Psychology earlier this year found that players are unwilling to share their concerns or admit to personal struggle, because they feel that is “unsafe to show vulnerability”.
Dr Susan Wood looked at the reasons why players are reluctant to address the state of their own wellbeing. After speaking to several professionals, Dr Wood ascertained that they felt that the football pitch is “a battlefield”, with “signs of vulnerability or weakness feeling like threats to their survival”, which inextricably transfers to their personal lives.
The head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers’ Association, Michael Bennett, has urged clubs to go to greater lengths in order to meet their “duty of care”. He highlighted that there has been a significant increase in footballers, past and present, coming forward to seek help.
Several high-profile incidents have underscored that battle. Depression claimed the life of German international goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009, after having been diagnosed with the illness in 2003. Enke’s departing note came with an apology for the concealment of his condition.
And Wales manager, Gary Speed, who was secretly living with depression, committed suicide in 2011. His sister, Lesley Speed, said in 2013: “He hid it from us, because people who are suffering from depression are not only fighting the illness but they are fighting the stigma that goes with it.
“It probably stopped him from asking for help from within his job.”
Several former footballers have come out and spoken publicly about their mental health, although often when their playing career has ended.
Hibernian manager Neil Lennon has endured several bouts of depression, spanning across his playing and management career, while former Scotland international goalkeeper Andy Goram was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the twilight of his playing days. Having made the admission, he was subsequently a target of abuse from the stands.
The Football Association has taken steps to promote a culture of inclusivity for those who aspire to take up the sport. The organisation believes that participating in football can aid mental wellbeing in three steps: Delivering social inclusion, helping physical health, and improving people’s mental health.
The FA champion football as a social activity, culminating in lasting friendships and aiding a sense of community.
The organisation also stresses the importance of physical activity as a benefit for mental health.