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More Than Just a Game: What Football can do for Mental Health

Will Geeson writes about the part football has played in his ongoing struggle with mental health issues.

On Monday 7th March 2017, an incredibly brave young man stood before Parliament and explained how football had ‘saved his life’. James Casling, 21 years old, had been sectioned and placed on ‘suicide watch’ a short time after his father had taken his own life. The thought of living had become less bearable than the welcome prospect of death. He had, in his own words, ‘lost all sense of belonging’ and could not find a reason to continue to exist. Then, one day in hospital, football came into his life and gave him the purpose that he had so desperately been reaching for. A representative from the QPR Community Trust offered him the opportunity to play, coach and feel a significant part of a football team specifically founded for players suffering from mental illness. After a time, James had a sense of belonging again, playing shoulder to shoulder alongside teammates who became, ‘not just friends, but family’. Having had his Level One Coaching qualification paid for by the scheme, joint funded by The Wembley National Stadium Trust and Interactive, who promote disability equality in sport across London, he has now not only regained control over his own life, but is facing the future with renewed desire and determination.

When mental health and football are found together in a sentence, the emphasis is almost always on the important work being done to deal with the deeply worrying number of professional footballers afflicted by mental illness. A 2014 study by the World Players’ Union, FIFPro, found that as many as 1 in 4 professional footballers suffer from mental illness, higher than general population average. The example of the success of the Welsh FA’s ‘same shirt’ campaign offers hope that this issue is being taken with more appropriate seriousness than in the past. It is undeniable that football has a serious mental health problem. However, this negative association between football and mental health in only half of the story. For many people like James Casling, the beautiful game has an immense capacity to provide the direction, community, structure, and simple joy that they so desperately need.

Noam Chomsky has argued that within a capitalist society, organised sports exist to distract individuals from the realities of their oppression. It exists to ‘reduce people’s capacity to think’. As such, sport occupies ‘an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence’. Chomsky is of course right to suggest that football is not as important as structural inequality, global warming and the threat of nuclear war. Nonetheless, a distraction does not necessarily have to be a negative thing. A distraction can be a refuge. Individuals are often acutely aware of the problems they face, whether it be a lack of job security, family disorder or identity confusion. Sport does not have to a lead one to neglect life’s adversities. Rather it can provide the platform upon which to cope with one’s circumstances, to make them bearable. Individuals living with mental illness are more aware of the challenges they face than anyone else. When everyday life can be a struggle, the presence of something which ’has no meaning’ can grant invaluable respite.

At this point I could offer countless examples of programmes such as those rolled out by the QPR Community Trust which have kept people like James Casling alive. The FA and Time to Change have a project called ‘Imagine Your Goals’ which harnesses the potential of football as a vehicle for community integration and reducing the stigma surrounding mental health.  Beyond this, the emergence of Walking Football societies have had a significant impact on mental health challenges facing the elderly and increasingly isolated. All of these efforts are supported by various studies and data. However, if I can be allowed the opportunity to indulge, I would like to follow the example of James Casling and attempt to explain, from a deeply personal perspective, the power that football can have in offering not a distraction but a refuge from the chaos and confusion that can come as a result of being mentally ill.

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Baby Will in 1997

I have suffered from a serious mental health condition for as long as I can remember. It has always been part of me and part of my life. It influences the way that I interact with the world. As preposterous as it must inevitably sound, I could pretty much say the same about football. When my health reached near critical depths in my third year of university, I had no choice but to return home to receive medical treatment for my condition. It became a bit of a running joke amongst my peers that I spent most of this time watching obscure football matches. This wasn’t actually that far from the truth. When I felt too anxious to leave my house let alone my own room I would sit and watch whatever football that the gazillions of sports channels had to offer. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read, I couldn’t bring myself to ring friends, but 90 minutes of football would provide a truly beautiful period of engagement with the world.

Most of that period of my life is a dull blur, but I can still remember Leicester winning the Premier League, I can still see Sturridge scoring that delightfully placed shot against Sevilla just before Liverpool’s inevitable collapse in the Europa League final. I cried when I watched Bocelli sing at the King Power Stadium on my phone, accompanied by 30,000 delirious Leicester supporters. I was moved to tears by that spectacle at a time where everything else seemed, as Chomsky would say, too ‘important’ to cry about. I keenly felt the psychological phenomenon in sport known as ‘Basking in Reflected Glory’ (BIRG).

BIRG describes the feelings of happiness, well-being and collective euphoria often induced by sporting success when a supported team does well. It wasn’t my success, of course. Football often involves attributing the glory of others to yourself or your community. It is certainly irrational, but that doesn’t stop it from being real. Hell, if I was feeling irrational despondence in my everyday life, I felt more than entitled to a taste of irrational joy once in a while. Importantly, I was able to share in that collective euphoria, not in spite of, but because it was completely irrational. It is the essential quality of organised sport, that the shared emotion doesn’t really make any sense.

Football not only provided me with a structure through which to experience real empathy again. It also did more than anything to help me deal with the isolation of being at home whilst all of my friends were away together at university. I couldn’t talk honestly about my illness to a trained professional let alone one of my friends, but I could just talk about football. Pretty much every interaction I had in those months involved a conversation about football. I couldn’t text a friend explaining how I felt, so I’d ask them why they thought Eden Hazard seemed so out of sorts. It worked vice-versa: When Wales embarked on that glorious journey in the European Championships, I had countless messages from friends commenting on how much I must be enjoying seeing my country so spectacularly overperform. What they were really doing was just asking if I was doing ok. Football allowed me to keep in the loop with people. Whenever anyone came to visit, we would almost invariably watch a match together. Football provides a common reference point for people whose experiences at any given time could not be more far apart.

This common reference point also allows an individual to experience the real sense of belonging which James Casling spoke of in his address to Parliament. As a supporter of Leeds United, I become part of a family whenever I take my place in the North Stand at Elland Road. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. I don’t have to justify my existence. I am consumed in the mentality of the football club and feel the surge of joy inevitably coupled with the crippling despair associated with any experience of supporting Leeds United. For the duration of the match my fortune is tied together with every white-shirted player on that pitch and the thousands of screaming people around me.

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We’re all Leeds aren’t we?

These trips to Leeds are also family affairs in a more immediate sense as I often go with my dad and one of my brothers. The three of us have never lived together under the same roof and, just as in any family, the relationships can be complicated. Under the roof of the North Stand everything is simpler: we are all Leeds. We even have the same over-sized Billy Bremner shirts bought for us by my Dad—a man who can never quite let go of the glory days of the 70s. When kick off approaches, we all sing Marching On Together, an experience which never grows old.

As a Welshman singing is necessarily the other great passion of my life. I have sung regularly in a choir throughout my life and the anonymity of being nothing more than a note in a chord is something that I have always treasured. The noise at Elland Road is maybe slightly less harmonious, but never any less powerful. This escapism which football offers is not about distraction. It is about participation in something which can never really be quantified: sharing in the ‘ups and downs’ with a horde of people, perhaps one of the few environments in our society where raw emotion conquers everything.

Another weapon supplied by the game in the fight against mental disharmony is the simple order and structure it provides. Football is a game where the rules are defined, where a win gives you three points and league tables alter themselves respectively. When the world around you seems to be little more than chaos, football gives you an arena in which you can more easily make sense of things. When I was younger, I used to sit by myself in the garden and line up plastic cars before pushing them each with approximately equal force and recording the results. This would then lead to certain cars ‘qualifying’ for the subsequent heats until a grand champion was discovered and crowned. It was a completely solitary activity and I never discussed it with anyone. It’s hardly an easy concept to sell to your 7-year-old friends. To me, it was often the most important activity I did all day. It gave me some kind of order when life could very often appear terrifying and overwhelmingly out of kilter.

Luckily for me, this then merged into my love for football and this time other people seemed to kind of get it. Even today, I will spend hours each week poring over league tables around the world, taking note of the adjustments, getting a quiet thrill out of an increase in form for a side lower down in the Portuguese top division. Again, it seems more than a bit irrational and doesn’t seem to have much point to it. Nevertheless, those league tables are always there, always following the same rules and giving me an easy method to calm an illness which sometimes manifest itself through crippling anxiety. For many people, their illness will often contain elements of this kind of obsession and, perhaps surprisingly to some, the structures of sport can offer sincere relief.

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Back at University

I am now back at university having faced my illness head on and have reached a state where I am able to live a productive life whilst regulating those pesky chemicals in my brain. Tonight I’m going to have a relaxed kick about with some friends. I am not the most gifted of footballers by anyone’s measure. My playing style is a little like Pirlo if he was aged 60 and had spades instead of feet. Amidst the blood and thunder of a committed 5-a-side encounter I don’t care. We can all be heroes. All you need is a few jumpers for goalposts and something at least close to a football. For those couple of hours, I won’t be Will ‘with all his various issues’, I will be Geeson, terror of the deep-lying pocket in midfield.

Bill Shankly once remarked, ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you that it is much, much more than that.’. This rings true for me and I hope many others for whom football is an opportunity to switch off from despair and be part of something a bit special. I was terrified to write this article, as there still exists deep stigma within the game and wider society. I have been inspired by the candidness of James Casling to share my experience and hope that others can do the same. The football family will always be there to pick you up, as it has been for me time and time again.

______________________

Will Geeson is a final-year Law student at Cambridge University. He is also a regular contributor to the Team of John O’Sheas podcast. You can find him tweeting @wdcgeeson.

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