BACP members are playing a key role in helping footballers deal with mental health issues as the PFA reveals an increase in the number of players asking for help.

New figures from the Professional Footballers’ Association show that 438 current and former professionals accessed therapy through its network of BACP counsellors and psychotherapists in 2018. That was 35 more than 2017, and up 278 compared to 2016.

There is also a rising trend in the number of current players seeking counselling and psychotherapy.

There used to be a 70/30 split in favour of ex-professionals asking for help. But the PFA’s head of welfare Michael Bennett said that split had now reversed, which suggests more than 300 of the 2018 total were current players, up from fewer than 50 in 2016.

It's not weak to talk

Michael, a BACP member, said: “It’s really swung the other way now. Once you would never have wanted to show any weakness as a player, but they now realise it’s not weak to talk about things.

“The issues have always been there – dealing with injuries, transition in and out of the game, going on loan and feeling isolated, foreign players being lonely and so on, and then you have problems related to money worries or addiction.

“But they have perhaps been a little bit under the radar and too many people have suffered in silence in the past. Now, I hope, people realise you can ask for help and help is available.”

Michael feels there are two significant factors behind the increase in the number of players seeking counselling: high-profile players have spoken about their problems and the PFA has got better at publicising what help is available, via club visits, workshops and its mental health and well-being conferences at St George’s Park near Burton on Trent.

In November, we reported on how the PFA offered Leicester City players and staff counselling from BACP members following the death of the club’s owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.

The stigma has gone

Michael knows only too well that most players will endure physical injuries at some point and they are usually visible and easy to diagnose. Some players, however, can seem healthy while struggling with their mental health.

He sustained a serious knee injury when he was breaking through at Charlton Athletic and, while he did eventually return to play, the mental stress caused by the injury forced him to retire at 29.

Having retrained as a counsellor and psychotherapist, Michael has run the PFA’s player welfare department since 2011, setting up a network of BACP counsellors and psychotherapists, and launching the union’s 24-hour helpline.

And he is positive about the fact that more players are seeking and receiving help.

“When PFA members like Clarke Carlisle, Chris Kirkland, Steven Caulker and Gemma Bonner have bravely spoken about their issues, it just makes it more acceptable,” he said. “The stigma has gone.”