Martyn McLaughlin: Time to break taboo of mental health in football

David Coxs candid revelation of depression as a result of the pressures felt by many lower league footballers could help to lift the lid on a problem too often swept under the carpet. Picture: SNS Group
David Coxs candid revelation of depression as a result of the pressures felt by many lower league footballers could help to lift the lid on a problem too often swept under the carpet. Picture: SNS Group
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WE ARE beginning to break the taboo but more support is urgently needed for players, writes Martyn McLaughlin

There is a longstanding rule between a friend and me that has only been breached once. He never asks about my work and, in return, I don’t butt into his. When the exception was made, it was on his terms. It skirted around the subject of his career as a professional footballer, but really, it was a red flag about his mental health.

At the time, he playing regularly for a team in the lower tiers of the Scottish football league and was winning praise after a frustrating spell with injuries. But he had a secret he kept from his girlfriend, an oxygen cylinder stashed in the wardrobe of their spare room. When she found it, he claimed it helped with his physical recovery. In truth, he depended on it on match days to alleviate his anxiety. “I’m scared of letting the team down,” he confided.

The advice of friends and an understanding manager meant he was able to talk through his feelings and find the right help. He is one of the fortunate ones. Whatever doubts and fears he harboured were modest compared to the suffering endured by David Cox,

In an interview to help publicise Mental Health Awareness Week, the Forfar Athletic striker has spoken candidly of his own struggles with depression, a fight that saw him self-harm and attempt suicide on several occasions. He experienced a tough time off the pitch – such as the separation of his parents and gaining access to his daughter – but as anyone who has heard the black dog bark will attest, mental illness is an indiscriminate scourge, striking without rhyme or reason.

Where Cox’s profession made matters worse was when he was between clubs, a spell he describes as the worst of his life. He tried to take his life. Were it not for his sister walking in on him, he might not be here to tell his cautionary tale.

The pressure of expectation is fertile ground in which depression can take root. With its perennial cycle of hope and disappointment, football’s rank and file are prime candidates for this debilitating of illnesse.

Research last October by Fifpro, the international players’ union, found 38 per cent of 607 professionals interviewed had suffered from depression or mental health problems at some stage of their careers.

No wonder. It is a sport which abides by a binary set of emotional rules that leave little room for nuance between glory and disaster. Other professions see mediocrity go unpunished, if acknowledged at all. Football, however, is notoriously impatient of failure, reducing people to the sum total of their performances. It imposes myriad targets spanning seasons, individual matches and training sessions. Players who fall short can expect to be dropped, castigated by their fanbase and lampooned by the press.

Some argue these are the risks they signed up for in return for uncommon rewards. The gold-rush bonanza of television rights deals has alienated many supporters and hardened prejudices against footballers. If this feeling could be characterised as indignation a decade ago, it now manifests itself in darker ways – anger, resentment and disgust, all routinely expressed on terraces, social media and fan forums.

Yet these riches belong only to the gilded few in the carnival of self-interest that passes for England’s top flight. In Scotland, the game continues to contract year on year, with potentially treacherous repercussions for those who depend on it to support their families. Indeed, it would be a shame if Cox’s articulate message failed to reach a wider audience on account of his modest standing in the game – that is precisely why it matters.

He forms part of a legion of players who ply their trade in the lower divisions, a realm where uncertainty prevails. Outside of the Premiership and a few teams in the Championship, the majority of Scottish footballers consider themselves lucky to receive a contract longer than a year. Many are on three-month or six-month deals. The prospect of losing their job – which, as Cox found, can be a trigger for darkness – is never far away.

The unreliable nature of employment in the game’s foothills was a major factor in the spike of enquiries PFA Scotland received at the end of last season, a time of the year when deals expire and professionals – many without qualifications to fall back on – do not know where their next pay cheque is coming from. The current close season is only a few days old, but already there are some 40 out-of-contract players touting their credentials.

The straitened circumstances of Scottish football mean few clubs employ specialist counsellors or mental health experts with whom players can talk through their concerns. The welcome anomalies, such as Dr Carrie McCrea at Hearts, do sterling work, while PFA Scotland’s Wellbeing fund puts footballers – a breed historically distrusftul of outsiders – in touch with sports and clinical psychologists as well as services such as Breathing Space. It does a commendable job considering it receives no financial help from the game’s governing bodies.

While Cox and figures like Iain Russell have done admirable work by coming forward to help tackle antediluvian attitudes, the taboo of mental health in the game remains a stubborn one. It requires a more concerted approach on the part of clubs and authorities, but also a recalibration of the way we perceive those who make a living from the sport, men with extraordinary pressures and ordinary problems.

Fans are quick to sympathise with players who suffer career-threatening physical injuries. If we can understand their other vulnerabilities, would it not give us added reason to celebrate their successes?