Football and other elite sports: a mental health strategy

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Football, along with other elite sports’ governing bodies are currently embracing the fallout of elite athletes reporting mental ill-health – along with implementing the UK government’s proposals for a mental health strategy, set to be in place by 2020.

The Professional Footballers Association (PFA), for example, have established dedicated websites, which allow athletes and their families to access important information regarding mental health and well-being issues but also a 24-hour phone line, providing guidance and expert listening.

According to website information:

The PFA has taken on a vital role in increasing support available to players with mental health problems. The PFA set up a National Counsellors Support Network, launched a 24-hour helpline for players, trained its coaches in mental health first aid and teamed up with the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, to publish The Footballers’ Guidebook, including advice on how to deal with depression, anxiety, panic, and anger.

There appears little in the way, however, of specific information concerning the selection, preparation, and on-going support of professionals undertaking mental health first aid training. This is likely to prove a requirement for safe and effective health care along with the governance of independent sectors offering counselling, psychotherapy or other means of support for athletes experiencing episodes of mental ill-health.

Nonetheless, the website states that:

`The Premier League is rolling out mental health training for their academy staff and The Football Association (FA) is planning to include content about recognising the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in its coaching qualifications as part of developing a mental health and wellbeing.`

While on the surface all looks laudable, there are likely issues regarding the emotional safety and management of risk for those providing mental health services and well-being support as well as issues concerning alignment to regulatory bodies.

Addressing concerns for mental health and elite sports is in its infancy and policy development is a critical underpinning to establishing sound governance and protecting vulnerable children and adults from the vicissitudes in sporting environments – contributing to mental ill-health.

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