(Reuters) - Soccer clubs need to take a longer-term approach to the mental health of their players, and not just for the duration of their contracts, the chief medical officer of world players’ union FIFPro told Reuters.
The issue was brought to the fore after former Premier League player and ex-chairman of the English Professional Footballers’ Association Clarke Carlisle said this week that he had been trying to commit suicide when he was struck by a truck in December.
Carlisle made more than 500 appearances during a 16-year career but struggled to adapt to life off the pitch, resulting in his suicide attempt three days before Christmas last year.
“(Carlisle is) quite extreme example of course, so when it comes to this it’s a little bit surprising, (but) it doesn’t matter if it’s a pro footballer or a normal human being,” Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge said in an interview.
Gouttebarge is the author of a pilot study from 2013 that showed that one in four professional footballers showed symptoms of depression during their careers, with that number rising to 40 percent for those who had retired from the game.
Once a taboo subject, the issue has been pushed to the forefront following a number of high-profile cases of players and ex-players battling mental health issues, with some tragically taking their own lives.
The death of well-respected Wales manager Gary Speed in an apparent suicide shocked the British game in 2011, and Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke struggled with depression for several years before taking his own life in 2009.
Gouttebarge welcomed the fact that many clubs now employ sports psychologists, but called for them to take a longer-term view.
“Clubs are employers, and by law they have to promote and protect the health and safety of the player during their career — not only the physical health in terms of injuries, but also mental health,” he said.
“A club just looks at the short term perspective. If a player just has a two-year contract with a club, it’s difficult for them to take a long-term perspective.
“But the union places health and safety of the player in a long-term perspective, during and after their career, and of course clubs have the responsibility.”
Gouttebarge pointed out that perhaps only three percent of players would be financially independent at the end of their careers, and that money was no insurance against mental illness.
“Professional footballers are like anyone. They are human beings first, despite the money and the attention in the media,” he said.
“They are also exposed during their careers, on the field and in their private lives, to psycho-social stress.”
The 39-year-old Frenchman combined the final years of his playing career at Dutch division two side Almere City with his medical studies, and is set to publish a more comprehensive study into soccer and mental health.
“With all the knowledge gathered we will be well on the way to raising awareness of mental health in sports,” he said.
Reporting By Philip O'Connor in Stockholm; editing by Toby Davis