Henry Hood takes a look at the issues still surrounding mental health in the world of sport.
On the 10th of November 2009, Germany’s first choice goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide. Having refused to be admitted to psychiatric therapy in fear of ‘losing his career’ and ‘letting everyone down’, his depression became a tragic career-ending illness. Over 10 years later, a stigma remains about mental health in sport and only recently have we seen English athletes such as Danny Rose, Aaron Lennon and Freddie Flintoff have the confidence to come out and admit their struggles. But after all this time, has enough been done in the sporting world to break the stigma around mental health?
Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell has been the most recent to come out and admit his struggles with anxiety since his £45m transfer to the London club, and became part of a growing number of athletes who support discussions about mental health. After Aaron Lennon’s sectioning under the Mental Health Act in 2018, and the continuance of his career after therapy, it seems the sporting world has made steps in the right direction away from the tragic loss of Robert Enke.
This movement isn’t just limited to football, but sport as a whole. Ex-England cricketer Freddie Flintoff has recently released ‘Living with Bulimia’, a powerful documentary talking about his struggles with an eating disorder after fans brandished him ‘Fat Flintoff’. Perhaps the most eye-opening part is when an England dietician wrote off eating disorders as ‘silly’ in a presentation to the team and expected none of the England squad to suffer from any. Flintoff cited this as the moment he decided he wouldn’t opt for therapy and instead, would hide his bulimia from the team out of shame; throwing up during Ashes test matches in the changing room became routine.
It is perhaps inevitable that in a profession so focused on physical performance that mental health is an issue. Struggles with body image and performance anxiety are clearly an unavoidable part of being a professional athlete. However, what needs to change is the perception of these mental illnesses. The added stress of targeted social media abuse after a bad performance can only make things worse and although sites such as Twitter are doing more to crack down on this abuse, it still remains.
Recent examples of this are Real Madrid’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, who both used the new feature of turning off comments on Instagram and Twitter to help stop the torrent of abuse after poor performances for their club. Fans who have gone as far as racist abuse have, in some instances, been arrested for their comments online. However, the bottom line remains that fans mostly get away with targeted abuse towards athletes, regardless of the damage it does for athlete’s mental health.
In Enke’s legacy, his widow has set up the Robert Enke Foundation and vows to make the sporting world view mental health illnesses in the same light as physical injuries. Progress has been made and the growing number of athletes bravely telling their stories, does suggest that the stigma around mental health as a ‘weakness’ is waning. But it is almost assured that these brave few athletes are among a small minority who openly admit their struggles. Football clubs and sporting organisations are increasing funding in their therapy support network, but it is years behind the nowhere cutting-edge, world-class help offered for physical injuries. Until more is done by social media companies to limit targeted abuse, or more athletes come out and push for an open dialogue about mental health, a stigma will remain.