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Men’s Mental Health and The Problem with Football’s Youth Academies

Picture by Tom Pumford on Unsplash
Picture by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE

[This article deals with the sensitive issue of suicide. The views presented in this article are of the author’s own volition. If you or anyone you know is in need of support, there are a number of support networks linked at the bottom of this page that is there to help you. Alternatively, Queen Mary University London offers a variety of support for students through the Advice and Counselling Centre. For more information please visit this link: https://www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/ ]

Every November, millions of pounds are raised across the UK to create awareness about men’s health. This has been made possible by the Movember charity, encouraging men to grow out their moustache or take on 5k runs throughout the month in order to promote their fundraisers. In a year that has been so difficult for many people, opportunities like this to speak openly about mental health has never been more important than now. 

Suicide is a leading cause of death in young men. In a tragic statistic, 75% of 6000 suicides in 2017 were men. Partly responsible for this high percentage are the traditional gender norms that have been present for generations. By putting on a facade of strength and dominance, men have been conditioned to contain their negative emotions and abstain from revealing any signs of weakness.

Whilst much has been done in recent years to eradicate this barrier that obstructs men from speaking up, the hundreds of years of toxic masculinity continue to leave its mark on today’s society. If this is the case, more has to be done to build greater support systems in which men are able to speak freely about their own feelings and mental health.

One area in which more work has to be done to support young men especially is in the football industry. In England, football is extraordinarily competitive. To put it into perspective, a young boy who joins an academy at the age of nine has less than a one percent chance of becoming a professional at any level. To narrow this further, only 0.012 percent go on to sign a contract out of 1.5 million academy players who join at any one time.

And with more money being pumped into football clubs every year, it’s feeling like this percentage might even decrease further if clubs continue to invest their money abroad rather than in their youth setups.

So, for the thousands of hours of matches and training, the blistering cold nights training alone in the park, the countless sacrifices they’ve been forced to make in all aspects of their life, falls upon that one critical moment as to whether they’ll be signed or released.

For the millions of academy players who don’t make it, this shattered dream can come as a great shock. Out of these millions of players, one in eight of them are said to suffer from mental health issues. So for a young player with depression, being released can affirm his own irrational and negative beliefs, clouding his vision to the point that he’s unable to see any other way forward than to take his own life. 

This was sorrowfully the case only one month ago when the former Manchester City academy player Jeremy Wisten was taken from us too early after being released from the club. As a player, he “clearly had an incredible talent as a footballer”, said the coroner Mr Golombeck. While shining as a player on the pitch, it was the love he had for his family and friends that shone off the pitch. In a GoFundMe page set up to support Wisden’s family, the description reads: “Everyone who knew Jez would know that he had a smile that would light up the room”. 

There remains an ongoing investigation relating to “the time both leading up to and following his release from the club, detailing if any, support that was given to him both from the period leading up to and following his release”. It is difficult to imagine the pain felt by Jeremy’s passing and my deepest thoughts go out to his family during this very difficult time. 

Whilst the FA and Premier League attempt to improve the current system, the passing of Jeremy Wisten highlights the immense danger that the youth footballing system continues to pose towards young men. 

The system has undoubtedly improved over the last number of years. Clubs are being asked to have a certain number of home-grown players in their squads and £320 million has also gone into education, welfare and the intensive monitoring of players. As from their release, for example, players are tracked for four years and continue to keep in touch with the club throughout that period.

At the same time, however, the system still has its problems. In spite of the intense monitoring, players may still bottle up the emotions and choose not to speak about how they truly feel. Therefore, support should be provided in all aspects: meeting up in person, giving them contact with other ex-academy players who have gone on to do great things, and most of all making sure that they don’t feel lost and alone.  

In addition, part of how they view themselves following their release can be influenced by what they see on social media. Seeing individuals who only show their successes rather than their failures give a false reality and they can end up feeling degraded themselves. It is therefore important that academies control their player’s social media usage as well as to highlight its portrayal of a false reality.

The football industry is just one example of a need to raise awareness about men’s mental health throughout society. This includes the workplace, schools, prisons, universities and so on.

As students of the Queen Mary University of London, there are many things we can do as individuals to help. Many students have been fundraising throughout the month to raise money for the Movember charity. At the time of writing this, Queen Mary students have now raised £13,102 for Movember.

But you don’t have to wait until next November to contribute to improving mental health in society. There are a number of other mental health charities out there where you can donate to yourself or start a fundraiser, such as Mind UK and Rethink.

There are also a number of things you can do on a daily basis to help the people around you.

Firstly, reach out to those you might not have spoken to in a while – they may struggle to be able to reach out themselves and even a quick text to ask how they’re doing could make a huge difference.

Secondly, be there to listen to them and let them know you’re there for them – the feeling that they are not alone is so important.

Thirdly, remind them that there is plenty of support available to them and reassure them that it is completely normal to ask for help. Finally, remember to look after yourself – take some time out to meditate, go on a run, watch a film, buy your favourite drink etc.

Nobody said that studying for a degree during a global pandemic was easy, and it’s just as important to check on yourself and others too.

Here is a list of organisations you can contact if you need support or would like to learn more about mental health:

  Samaritans (116 123)

  CALM (0800 58 58 58)

  Mind UK (0300 123 3393)

  Rethink Mental Illness (0300 5000 927) 

For more information visit: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/

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