Like many companies and organisations, FieldHouse Associates has been marking Mental Health Awareness Week. In this post, intern Joey Doyle tackles issues relating to men’s mental health, reflecting on ideas of masculinity and emotional openness in the world of football.
Sport has played a huge role in my life. I have always loved playing football and enjoy the social side just as much. Nonetheless, I feel that football can foster an atmosphere of toxic masculinity and pseudo-comradery that is unhealthy for young men. In these environments, expressing yourself through anything other than aggression or humour is often regarded as a weakness rather than a strength. Maybe we should occasionally remove the barricade of banter and question how this is affecting men’s mental health in the long-term.
There has been visible progress in the conversation at the highest level. Paul Gascoigne and Chris Kirkland have spoken frankly about their struggles with depression and anxiety. In a practical sense, the FA broke the mould when they promoted Gareth Southgate from the U21s to the role of England manager in 2016. After a string of veteran managers with somewhat old-fashioned approaches, they brought in a younger man with a softer touch and recent first-hand experience of the pressures of international football. When Southgate missed that penalty in 1996, the conversation about mental health was far from as widespread as it is today. Gascoigne was a victim of this era, failing to achieve his full potential under the mental strain of the dizzying highs and crushing lows. Under Southgate, we now have a happier, healthier group of players, who are exceeding what is expected of them.
However, it is crucial that this isn’t just applied at Wembley but across the country, on 5-a-side pitches from Wandsworth to Wakefield. In the UK, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. I count myself lucky that I grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged emotional honesty rather than suppressing it. However, I certainly didn’t learn this on a football pitch or in a dressing room. This was a product of the role models and interests I had outside of sport. Particularly for men in their 20s, I think it is important to have homosocial relationships that are diverse in both background and age range. Young men need male role models who can provide relatable advice, grounded in genuine, authentic experience. Football at a grassroots level can and should provide that.
The recent tragic death of Love Island contestant and former professional footballer Mike Thalassitis is representative of an epidemic. We all need to be proactive rather than reactive when dealing with mental health issues. Even taking small steps can make a huge difference. Modern managers know the value of an arm around the shoulder in victory or defeat. Perhaps if men apply this on an everyday basis, then we’ll make each other stronger and better-equipped to deal with what life throws at us.