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Will the FA’s Heads Up campaign change how football clubs address mental health issues?

Hopefully, the program will not only change clubs’ treatment of players’ mental health, but raise public awareness of the issue.

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Manchester City v Chelsea - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

The FA just launched the Heads Up campaign, in which for two weekends in February1 every football team from across the Premier League, English Football League, The National League, The Barclays FA Women’s Super League, The FA Women’s Championship and The FA Women’s National League will dedicate their matches to Heads Up.2 The point of the program is to harness the influence and power of football to generate serious conversations about mental health. Slowly, more footballers (and fans) are beginning to seek support for their mental health, though discussions on the topic remain difficult. The question is, why has it taken such a long such a long time for the Football Association to address this problem?

Since organised sport began, mental health problems have been considered a stigma rather than a health condition that requires treatment. Over the last six years, there’s been a sixfold increase in the number of football players in England seeking mental health support services, yet clubs still have a long way to go in terms of implementing support. Beyond raising awareness of the services available, teams must be willing to provide players, many who suffer from bouts of depression and anxiety, with concrete help. Tony Cascarino, a journeyman forward and Republic of Ireland international, wrote a book describing his struggles with anxiety. Joachim Fernandez, who’d played alongside Zinédine Zidane, was found dead on the streets, having lived rough for several years. Former Aston Villa player Stan Collymore, during an interview with me late last year, explained what it felt like when struggling with mental health issues, a difficult period in his life. “It was positive and negative. Negative that I was going through this at the club I love dearly; however, positive because by reaching out for help it saved my life!”

Aston Villa v Sheffield United - FA Cup Third Round Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

In 2001, even before more people became comfortable acknowledging or seeking help for their mental health problems. The World Health Organisation reported one in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life, and at some point in their life, and over 10% of the population battles with depression at any one time. Football squads, simple mathematics show, are likely to contain at least three players struggling with mental health issues. These players are pushed to their physical extremes week after week which can have severe effects on their mental health. For example, former Aston Villa striker Nicklas Helenius battled severe depression during his time at the club which left him with suicidal thoughts.

Only now is most of the footballing profession beginning to recognise how strenuous their sport can be. An August 2019 study shows professional football clubs in England are generally “deficient, neglectful and possibly negligent” in their duty of care toward long-term injured players who struggle with their mental health; only 37% of clubs have staff trained in psychology of injury.

As well as the footballing profession, many citizens around the world struggle with their mental health. Organisations must be structured in a way that provides support to those who are affected. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show there were 205 suicides in Birmingham between 2015 and 2017, a rate of 7.6 deaths per 100,000 people. This shocking statistic caused clubs to launch campaigns to combat the problem, including Aston Villa, whose foundation runs Think Football. The programme uses sport to offer anyone with a mental illness or struggles the opportunity to improve their wellbeing. On a weekly basis the Aston Villa Foundation coaches provide sessions and workshops for adults aged 18+ of any footballing ability. The purpose of Think Football is for anyone who attends the sessions to receive personal support and advice from the coaches as well as the opportunity to build self-esteem and confidence through football.

When launching the “Heads Up” campaign, Aston Villa fan and head of the FA Prince William highlighted the fact that it is ok to talk:

16-odd million people around the country follow football – and I thought we could use the power of the sport and really elevate mental health to another level and allow people to have that conversation and understand that it’s OK to talk and it’s OK not to be OK.

Marie Currie once said,“Talking about it is the best medicine”. Some organisations, like Aston Villa, believe community and physical activity is important to people’s wellbeing—and such places provide space to speak with others at the same time, reducing the isolation those struggling with mental health feel. Yet for some, talking about it doesn’t help, physical activity doesn’t help, vitamin D and green tea and whatever homeopathic remedies are shared don’t help. It’s important to remember that depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are a disease, and visiting a doctor is important; there’s no shame in taking pills to treat what is indeed an illness.

Yes, football clubs should improve their infrastructure to better care for players with mental illness. However, public institutions should also provide treatment and disseminate information on what to do if someone they know is struggling. No one should ever have to cope with mental health issues alone. Often the disease spirals, and the person begins to feel that it is something they will never overcome, and perhaps it would be better if they no longer existed. People must be made aware that this is a brain chemistry issue that is messing with their thoughts; they must seek help before the brain leads them to make horrible decisions. Friends and family should be taught to recognise the signs, and how to help those trying to climb out from under the heavy rock that is mental illness.

If you are struggling with mental health issues, please contact the following organisations.

Child line - 0800 1111

Samaritans - 116 123

Mind - 0300 123 3393

US National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-825 has a number of specialized hotlines (Spanish speaking, veterans, LGBTQ+ hotline) and a list of places people in different countries can contact:

1 Editor’s note: The 8–9 and 15–16, if you, like me, had no idea this was going on. Did anyone watch a non-Villa game that talked about the campaign? Let us know.

2 Editor’s other note: I do tune in just before kickoff, so if someone out there has an idea of just what they did to “dedicate” their games, please share in the comments.