A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending an online discussion panel hosted by Emil Franchi on behalf of the National Football Museum; featuring Kevin Miles (FSA), Saiqa Nas (Therapist and Writer), Dominic Stephenson (Author of Get Your Head In The Game) and Andy Smith (Professor at Edge Hill University and Everton in the Community’s Tackling the Blues campaign).
The panel, titled Create the Space: Twelve Months from the Terraces, was aimed at opening the conversation of the impact of Covid on mental health in the world of football. Amber Keegan Stobbs of Crystal Palace Women was also supposed to be a panellist, but was busy with training commitments. Amber has been very vocal in the past about her mental health and the broader issue of mental health in football, and her perspective as a player provides a unique insight into the world of mental health as someone directly involved in the beautiful game.
The conversation began with a discussion of mental health in general. Andy Smith, a professor in Sport and Physical Activity, was keen to note the parallels between physical and mental health. Physical health is something that is regularly appreciated for its importance and, as mental health has a long way to go with regards to breaking down the stigma surrounding the topic, conversations are often directed solely towards mental health. He suggested that, as mental and physical health are so intertwined, it could perhaps be sometimes more fruitful to talk about both in the same regard, as establishing this link between the two could help normalise the focus on both aspects.
One of the major themes throughout the discussion was the responsibility that football clubs have on the mental wellbeing of fans and players alike. The subject of betting in football, something that has now become such a standardised part of the match day experience, was referenced; as studies have found links between gambling and stress, anxiety and depression in some cases.
As the conversation came back round to the topic of the last twelve months, the work that many clubs had undertaken within their community was brought up. Many clubs have implored club officials, players and club ‘legends’ to contact members of their community to check up on their wellbeing. Whilst this was obviously an incredible scheme to ensure that members of the football community were not suffering as a result of the social isolation that many have experienced throughout the last year, it could be argued that this could set a positive precedent for the future if clubs were to continue to reach out to fans in this manner to ensure the wellbeing of their community, even long after the end of Covid related restrictions.
However, the issue of club’s responsibility goes further than just to the fans, it also extends to players as well. If mental health is to be considered in the same light as physical health, then surely any issues should be treated in a similar manner to injuries as requiring a recovery period. The well documented example of Gianluigi Buffon, who suffered a panic attack before a game in 2005, was brought up. Even though he approached his goalkeeping coach saying he wasn’t up for the match he ended up playing, saying that on the pitch he “felt even more alone”.
The question was raised as to whether clubs have a long term responsibility for the mental health of a player, even perhaps beyond the players’ contract.
The panel was insightful in providing different perspectives of the world of football and mental health, and it was interesting to see how multi-faceted the subject matter truly is. Opening the conversation up showed that progress is being made and we could see some positives come out of the last year but there is still work to be done to ensure that we can maintain the wellbeing of the communities that are built around the clubs that we support.