Premier League tackling mental health

Everton Academy players
Image caption Everton have been at the forefront of putting in place measures to care for their young players

Mental health is still an issue that some people are reluctant to talk about despite the fact that one in four people will be affected in some way.

So it may come as a surprise that the world of professional football - often seen as macho and tough - is taking the mental health of the young men who play the game at the highest level increasingly seriously.

The rain is lashing down on a wet and windy afternoon at Everton's Finch Farm training ground, where young footballers from the club's academy are honing their skills on the pitch.

It's a friendly game against Walsall, but while it might not look like a high pressure environment, these 16, 17 and 18 year olds are competing to become the best players of their generation.

The stakes are high. A career in professional football, with all the rewards that can bring, is the prize.

But staff at the club know the toll that pressure can take, so increasingly the mental health of these young men is as important as their physical fitness.

Problems shared

Inside Everton's impressive academy building, a classroom session is under way led by Dean Smith, the founder of the charity If U Care Share.

"There are times in life where things will come at us from different directions," Dean tells the class.

"We can't be expected to deal with everything all at once."

Image caption Dean Smith (right) uses a mixture of humour and moving testimony to get his message across

Dean mixes humour and short quizzes with some thought-provoking and moving testimony, not least when he tells the teenagers how he fell into depression after his son took his own life nine years ago.

The aim is to help the young players think about the sort of problems they might encounter and to whom they should turn if they need help.

These are important lessons to be learned for young men starting out on their careers.

"If you're not talking about it, it will just get worse, so best to talk about it, as Dean said," explained Spencer Myers, a 17-year-old scholar at the Everton academy.

"It's helped me to realise who I can speak to if I need to go and speak to them and not keep it all inside me, because you've got more chance of suffering," added fellow scholar Ciaran O'Loughlin.

Culture change

The fact that football is now dealing head-on with mental health issues has been welcomed by former player Paul Lake.

At the age of 20, Paul had the world at his feet, playing for Manchester City and talked of as a future England captain.

Image caption Former Manchester City player Paul Lake had to deal with the fallout when his promising career was wrecked by injury

But in an instant his career was ended by a nasty knee injury, leaving him to cope with the devastating aftermath on his own.

Twenty-five years later, he believes the culture has now shifted.

"It's been a seismic shift. The perception of it being such a macho environment, and boys, coaches and staff alike, not really opening up, as regards their emotional state, being able to cope with the challenges and stresses that are all around us.

"Because these young men ultimately have their dreams to be in the first team of that particular club. So what happens if they don't quite get there? Who do they speak to?"

Premier support

At Everton, the person they speak to is David Porter, the club's mental health first aider, trained to provide immediate help and support, should it be needed.

Every one of the 20 Premier League clubs now has someone like David in place.

Martyn Heather of the Premier League says the clubs realise they have a duty of care to the young people who play for them.

"We have over 3,400 players between the ages of nine and 21 in the Premier League academies and it would be unrealistic to think the issues young people have in society wouldn't be reflected in our own football environment.

"I think it's about recognising how different aspects can affect performance. In the same way an injury can affect performance and you can physically see an injury, when it comes to a mental health issue, you might not see them but they need to be recognised.

"It's about creating an environment and culture where players aren't afraid to admit they might need help."

This is not just about the pressures around football - experts say a quarter of us will experience some kind of mental illness.

But attitudes are changing.

And football clubs are now taking seriously their duty of care towards the mental health of the young men in their charge.

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