Sharp rise in footballers reporting depression symptoms

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By Tanya Nyathi

Almost a quarter of current and former professionals surveyed during the coronavirus pandemic say they are depressed or have considered self-harm.

The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) spoke to 262 members between mid-April and mid-May to assess the impact of the crisis on them and found that 57 of those individuals (22 per cent) felt depressed or had considered harming themselves.

Among current players, that figure was six per cent. The data showed that 182 of the 262 (69 per cent) were worried about their future football career or livelihood, and 72 per cent were regularly aware of feelings of nervousness or anxiety.

The survey also found that 24 of the group – equating to nine per cent – were experiencing difficulties with damaging addictive habits.

On the other hand, the global players’ union FIFPRO says there has been a sharp rise in the number of players reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety since the sport was brought to a standstill by the COVID-19 outbreak.

FIFPRO said that 22% of women players and 13% of men players who took part in a survey reported symptoms “consistent with a diagnosis of depression” such as lack of interest, lack of appetite, lack of energy and self-esteem.

This compared to 11% and 6% respectively in a similar survey conducted in December and January.

It said that 18% of women players and 16% of men reported symptoms of generalised anxiety such as worry or tension. There was some crossover with 11% of women players and 7.5% of men reporting both sets of symptoms, FIFPRO said.

“In football, suddenly young men and women athletes are having to cope with social isolation, a suspension of their working lives and doubts about their future,” said FIFPRO’s chief medical officer Vincent Gouttebarge.

“It is a time of huge uncertainty for the players and their families due to the insecurity of their future and the social isolation.”

FIFPRO said that the survey, conducted with the Amsterdam University Medical Centre, included 1,134 male players, with a mean age of 26, and 468 female players, with a mean age of 23, in 16 countries.

On a more positive note, Gouttebarge said that nearly 80% of players surveyed reported that they had access to sufficient resources and support for their mental health, often through their national player associations.

FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said they were not trying to make a special case for footballers.

“We are very conscious that this is a reflection of a problem in broader society than and there is no suggestion that it is more severe for our members,” said Baer-Hoffmann.

“Footballers are more similar to average society than most people think, and that is simply because of the misconceptions about how players live.”

He reiterated that many footballers lived a precarious financial existence at the best of times.

“The average contract length is under two years and the average income is close to that of the general public,” he said. “Many are incredibly dependent on their footballing skills and are not prepared for what would come after.”

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Tanya Nyathi is medical editor for FCB Health, a top Pharma Agency in New York. She holds an M.Phil in Communication Management from University of Pretoria in South Africa and an M.Sc in Journalism at Columbia University in New York. For seven years, she has been a regular health and science contributor to African news publications with a global audience. 

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