Depression figures for professionals ‘frightening’
More than a quarter of players suffer from anxiety and/or depression, Fifpro survey shows
Since St Patrick’s Athletic midfielder James Chambers spoke openly about his problems with depression, a number of League of Ireland players have come forward with similar stories. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The head of the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland (PFAI) has described as “frightening” a finding by the players’ international union, Fifpro, that more than a quarter of current professionals suffer from anxiety and/or depression.
The statistic comes from a major study conducted by the international organisation with just over 300 players, past and present, in six leagues, including the League of Ireland.
Aside from finding that 26 per cent of current players suffer from anxiety or depression, the study also revealed that 19 per cent admitted to “adverse” use of alcohol, while five per cent reported signs of burnout and twice as many described themselves as being “in distress”.
The numbers were significantly higher in most categories for retired players, with 39 per cent experiencing anxiety or depression, 42 per cent having difficulties with their weight and 32 per cent reporting adverse behaviour with alcohol.
“I’m not especially surprised by the figures for the retired players,” says PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness, “because we have come to realise there are a lot of issues to be dealt with there but some of the other figures are frightening.
“Obviously we would have been aware of the kind of problems being experienced through our regular dealings with the 260 odd professionals playing here – and we have had players who struggle to get of their car at grounds ahead of games – but the scale of it has caught us by surprise a bit.”
McGuinness says the union had six requests for help relating to mental health in 2013, mainly from leading players, with then Shamrock Rovers (now St Patrick’s Athletic) midfielder James Chambers’ difficulties, which he talked about openly at the time, the most publicised.
The new figures, which come from a study overseen by Dr Vincent Gouttebarge in the Netherlands, based on responses from players based there, New Zealand, Scotland, the US, Australia and here, suggest the number needing help is likely to be far higher, something the union here feels would require significant resources to tackle.
“There is a lot of money going into some areas at the moment,” says McGuinness, “like match-fixing, which is great but other areas, like mental health, are being relegated and in some cases the support services that are required could well be very expensive, as some of the cases we’ve dealt with have shown.
“That may well prove to be an issue for us further down the line.”
Players, he feels, suffer because of job insecurity, money worries and injury, all major issues for players in Ireland where contracts tend to be year to year.
“One of the things that surprised me about this study is the problem seems to be as bad in other leagues, where you would expect there to be more stability.”
Players approaching the end of their careers are especially vulnerable, he says, “because they don’t know what they are going to do with themselves and they worry about it and the problem is probably particularly acute here because while some educational services are provided by organisations like Fifpro to help players retrain, a lot of the lads here left school so early in order to pursue professional careers in England that they don’t have the basic qualifications required to even get on the courses.”
For many, the obvious solution has been to take up coaching but McGuinness believes that market is already becoming heavily saturated.
Few jobs going
“We’ve got huge numbers of players with coaching qualifications,” he says, “possibly the most in Europe in percentage terms, but there are very few jobs going, so we need to come up with alternatives.”
The union is doing just that with a number of courses being developed in conjunction with Plunkett College in Whitehall.
In the meantime, a greater emphasis is being placed on helping recently retired players, who tend to be vulnerable, and tackling the issue of alcohol abuse.
“Players who stop playing often experience problems and these findings highlight how important it is for them to stay active and involved.
“We’re working to help them with that and on a new code of conduct we’re looking to introduce with clubs aimed at making it clear to current players what’s acceptable in terms of drinking.
“ Obviously, it’s not ideal that players would be drinking at all during the season but they have a right to enjoy themselves too and the reality is while there’s traditionally been a drink culture in the game, it’s more that it’s an Irish thing . . . it’s how we celebrate, it’s how we spend our time.”