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Are we facing a mental health crisis in football?

BY Kate Beeden

19th Apr 2023 Sport

Are we facing a mental health crisis in football?

Working in such a public and high-stress environment, a concerning number of footballers are suffering from mental health problems 

The state of the nation’s mental health is in decline with the trauma of the pandemic and associated lockdowns and the current cost of living crisis contributing factors.  

Statistics from a 2022 survey suggested 22 per cent of young people aged 17-24 had a probable mental disorder such as depression or anxiety and the NHS state one in four adults present with a mental health problem in any given year. Mental health issues are endemic across the western world and high-profile athletes are not immune. 

Mental health and football—A brief history 


Tony Adams (left) playing for England at UEFA Euro 1988

The mental health of footballers has been a talking point for decades. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s top-name players such as Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams and Paul Merson spoke openly about their alcoholism and former Newcastle midfielder Keith Gillespie talked about his gambling addiction.  

The life of a footballer is not ordinary. It is a short career, carried out in front of thousands (if not millions) of spectators. Being in the public eye brings with it pressures that can negatively impact footballers’ mental health and approximately 35 per cent of elite athletes suffer with burnout, eating disorders, anxiety or depression—around ten per cent higher than the general population. 

Social media—A positive and a negative 

The popularity of social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok shows no sign of waning. These apps give individuals a platform they can control and, for high-profile sports stars, social media allows them to develop themselves as a brand. 

"Dr Martha Newson, a cognitive anthropologist, noted social media brought with it “added expectations” for football players due to the “huge appetite” for them to share their lives with followers"

Yet studies say social media can negatively impact our wellbeing and in a recent study on Premier League Fandom, Dr Martha Newson, a cognitive anthropologist, noted social media brought with it “added expectations” for football players due to the “huge appetite” for them to share their lives with followers. 

Racism and homophobia directed at players 


After England was defeated in the Euro 2020 final multiple players received racial abuse on social media

Social media also allows fans to communicate directly with footballers. Following England’s Euro 2020 Final defeat against Italy, Bukayo Saka, Jaden Sancho and Marcus Rashford all received racial abuse via their Instagram accounts and Bonnyrigg Rose striker Zander Murray, one of only a handful of openly gay footballers, has been subjected to homophobic comments on Twitter.  

"Bonnyrigg Rose striker Zander Murray, one of only a handful of openly gay footballers, has been subjected to homophobic comments on Twitter"

Despite race and sexuality being protected characteristics, and therefore legally protected from discrimination, the anonymity offered by the internet leaves anyone with a social media account open to hate speech. 

Not just players


Karen Carney (here playing in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup) was forced to delete her Twitter account after a torrent of abuse. Photo credit: IQRemix from Canada

It’s not only high-profile players who are affected. TV pundit and former England international Karen Carney deleted her Twitter account after a tweet from the official Leeds United profile led to a torrent of abuse, and, beyond social media, for players in the lower leagues, short-term (and sometimes part-time) contracts and cost of living can take their toll on mental health.  

Verbal abuse from the stands is commonplace for managers, coaches and referees to experience.  

Moving forward—What next? 

Moving forward, what can be done to reduce the negative impact of social media on footballers?  

Some professionals are choosing to take control by restricting their profiles, limiting replies so only people they follow can comment, or employing a social media handler to take over the running of their account.  

Clubs also need to take a stand, by showing zero tolerance to supporters who abuse players or other fans both in stadia and online; as well as ensuring fans are aware of how to report abuse via apps such as Kick It Out

Players speaking honestly about their mental health is another important step. Lionesses goalkeeper Mary Earps referred to her own mental health difficulties in her acceptance speech at the FIFA The Best Awards in February. Chelsea footballer Ben Chilwell shared that he has sought help for his own poor mental health for “a few years”, adding that the related stigma is “silly really, especially with men and men in football in particular”. 

"When everything comes together it is a wonderful place to be. Every footballer wants to be on the pitch playing and winning. The reality is that this is not always the case"

Clubs are now offering greater support to players through the work of safeguarding and wellbeing officers. Margaret Sinclair, who holds the role at Lewes FC, says, “When everything comes together it is a wonderful place to be. Every footballer wants to be on the pitch playing and winning. The reality is that this is not always the case. The player may be injured, resting, not playing their best, not the first choice for that game or any other number of reasons that will leave them on the bench or losing side. These factors are mentally tough to deal with, week after week and season after season.”  

She adds, “Here at Lewes F.C. we recognise that mental health is key to human performance, just as important as physical health, and so we have a dedicated team to support our players physically and mentally through their careers.” 

By taking these steps football can ensure they are doing everything in their power to protect the mental health of everyone involved in the beautiful game

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