Football’s mind games – therapy for mental health

MENTAL HEALTH is very much in the news at present, everyone seems to have suffered from problems at some point in their life. Mental Health has been misdiagnosed as a “cover all” for anything that touches the mind, be it depression, anxiety, paranoia, stress and a whole vast range of other conditions.

I have been receiving something called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to deal with a series of panic attacks that were a hangover of a health scare I had in Tokyo at the back end of last year. Just over a decade ago, with the global financial crisis in its early stages, I suffered from something called Amnesiatic Fugue, which may sound like a prog rock track by Yes, but was basically a stress-induced problem. As a financial writer, I covered so many aspects of the crisis that I knew too much and what the implications of a breakdown of society might be – hence, I went into my own self-induced meltdown.

Football, while causing folk, rather foolishly, to get over-stressed at times, acts as a distraction for people going through mental anguish. I recall a former colleague, who had seen his wife leave him over a Christmas period, consoling himself with the fact that Queens Park Rangers were at home on Boxing Day and that “She might have let me down, but the Superhoops will not, they are always there for me.”

This may sound like scant consolation, but it’s a case of “whatever turns you on”. If my old workmate was happier because he was able to attend a football match and that, during that two-hour spell inside Loftus Road, he felt insulated from some of the problems going on in his life, then the game was performing a very valuable service.

Many wives, one club

For most fans, there is only one club that truly grabs their affection. They may flirt with others, may have daliances with another club at some point in a life of football addiction, but it is rare that a fan really switches clubs. “You can have a number of wives, but only one club,” is a comment often heard, which not only encapsulates the sentiment of blind loyalty, but also reminds us that football’s heritage is very much male, testosterone-driven and lubricated by the elixir of the terrace, lager.

Football has never had much in the way of empathy and the environment would never acknowledge anyone could possibly have “issues”, although one of the old terrace chants was “let’s go mental”. Rabid hooligans have often been described as “nutters”, “loonies” or a “maniac” but rarely has anyone suggested that some may actually be habitually aggressive because of mental illness.

Football has often provided a place where the disaffected or the disenfranchised can find belonging. The solo fan, perhaps what many would call a “loner”, can find association and “belonging” at a football club. Every weekend, he or she becomes part of a loosely-connected family where everyone has the club as the common bond. This is very prevalent in non-league football, the club providing a local escape for people who may not have a huge social network. When I moved to Hitchin in 1987, I did not know anyone other than my wife. I went along to my local club, got involved and suddenly, I knew lots of people in a place that was around 50 miles from my home town.

A football club, although patronised by football-mad people, also comprises a cross-section of society and that includes people who have health problems. I recall back in 2008 and my “lost afternoon” when I walked out of the office and carried on walking from the City of London to Borough High Street, one of the things the doctor told me to do was go for walks and take in fresh air, one of the best therapies for people suffering from stress. For me, that meant keep going to football to take my mind off the things that were worrying me.

Football, while being a far from perfect industry and an example of the excesses of modern life, can help people who are going through turmoil. Some clubs have recognised this and included mental health in their portfolio of corporate social responsibility activities. We must, however, be careful not to let this condition/illness be abused and used as a get-out clause for behavioural lapses. For example, a friend of mine had to attend jury service for two weeks and every single defendant appealed on the grounds of “mental health issues”.

Record numbers

A quite high number of footballers have experienced problems, perhaps due to the high expectation placed on by the public. Certainly, young players who have set their heart on becoming a pro can go through a lot of mixed emotions when the dream fails to materialise. What does an 18 year-old who has sacrificed most other aspects of a young life and education, do when he’s released by a club? Non-league and a low-paid, unremarkable career?

But what of those that do make it? How would players like George Best and Paul Gascoigne have turned out if they had been able to cope with the pressure of fame? If the illness was recognised years ago, how many former pros could have avoided alcoholism, depression and poverty?

True, modern players at the top level  are exceptionally and ludicrously highly-paid individuals and sometimes, their behaviour does let them down. Money cannot compensate for mental stability, no matter how much we think that earning £ 150,000 per week means you can put up with anything. A person with a lot of money still has the same type of physiology and psyche as a player earning £ 300 per week.

The good thing is, the subject has moved from being the huge taboo it was and people going through mind matters are no longer considered weak, feeble and the subject of whispered comments and shoulder nudges. Football, as a mass spectator sport, is a good forum to deliver these important messages. The fact is, we are all vulnerable to the peaks and troughs of the mind – 10% of the UK population is suffering from depression at any one time. It makes you wonder, how many people inside Anfield, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or the Emirates are dealing with demons while watching their favourite team?


Photo: PA


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