Mental health charity records spike in Scottish football coronavirus calls

By Scott MullenBBC Sport Scotland
David Cox says picking up the phone can make a "massive difference"

Scottish footballers are being urged to speak to each other throughout the coronavirus pandemic to safeguard their mental health.

Charity Back Onside says it has spoken to more than 150 people in the past two weeks, 62 of them footballers from across the Scottish game.

Players union PFA Scotland has reiterated support advice after an upturn in members getting in touch.

Scottish football is not expected to resume until August at the earliest.

"As we do get into a lockdown situation and self-isolation, there will probably be a pick up on [the phone line being used]," said Michelle Evans, PFA Scotland's head of wellbeing.

"We have a lot of players who are on their own, it can be very isolating. It can be a lonely, worrying time, that's why we are telling the players to use WhatsApp groups to make sure team-mates are okay if they seem quieter.

"We know clubs are asking them to take wage cuts, which can be worrying. It is just about keeping in touch. It's more important now than ever that it is good to talk."

With the country urged to stay at home for the foreseeable future, many industries have come to a halt as the nation takes unprecedented measures.

On Monday, PFA Scotland issued advice and a reminder to their 1200 players of the support services in place following a spike in members getting in touch with the organisation in recent weeks, while the SPFL Trust is lobbying for mental health first aiders to become mandatory at all Scottish clubs.

The PFA services provided include a confidential emergency phone line to speak to a doctor, advice, face-to-face assessment, medical support, clinical psychology and counselling.

Jane Tattersall, a cognitive behavioural therapist who has worked in partnership with Back Onside over the last year, told BBC Scotland: "It's important that we take all calls seriously, although many of the people contacting us have built a trust with us and we have some background into their mental health.

"It's been pretty massive in the last month. Many of the people we have worked with previously have come back to the service struggling and just not being able to cope.

"Sportspeople, and the professionals we work with, have struggled with anxiety and depression for a long time, but this has made things feel out of control for them."

'I thought I was OK but others saw it'

Montrose goalkeeper Aaron Lennox has called on players in changing rooms across the country to speak to team-mates if they feel someone may be suffering with their mental health.

The Australian, formerly of Aberdeen and Partick Thistle, sought help after struggling to adjust to life as a part-time player following injury.

"I thought I was acting normally but others saw it before I did," he told BBC Scotland.

"I then had a really bad day and it shocked my partner and her family. I had kept things bottled up and hidden. So then I contacted Back Onside. It helped create a platform where I was comfortable talking about it to my partner and our families, even talking to other players around me.

"The most positive response I got was speaking to other players at Montrose. You think if you show weakness people will latch on, but they were really supportive.

"There's still a little bit of a stigma in dressing rooms, but things are changing. There's probably someone in every dressing room in Scotland who is struggling - you just don't know what people are going through. You also could be dropped from the team or not performing well, your mental resilience can break down.

"Friends and family may not even see it - it was like that with me. It took something big to happen where I was really struggling to make me realise I needed help, but if I spoke about it even a week before it may not have got so bad. Since then I've tried to go from positive to positive."

'Scotland can be a world leader'

Through the SPFL Trust and the Chris Mitchell Foundation, 310 people throughout Scottish football have qualified as a mental health first aider.

Currently 41 of the 42 SPFL clubs have taken part on sending staff on the two-day course, with proposed plans being discussed to make the scheme become mandatory for every football club in Scotland from the start of the 2021-22 season.

"We have been doing this on a voluntary basis but we have been lobbying for mental health to be considered on par with physical health and first aid," said Nicky Reid, SPFL Trust chief executive.

"Scottish football can be the first in the world to do it then that's not a bad place to be."

Asked if Scottish football is facing its biggest mental health challenge, Reid, who is also part of the Scottish Government's National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group, said: "Of course it is.

"Football is in an institution no matter how you are involved, and we need to be conscious of everyone's mental wellbeing throughout all of this. If there's anything we can do to support that, we need to look at it.

"Scottish football is far better placed to support our players, management and staff through a difficult time, but that doesn't mean we couldn't be doing more."