The Professional Footballers’ Association has received 11 new requests for help from members since Everton winger Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act just over a week ago.
So far in 2017, the PFA’s network of counsellors has helped 178 members, more than triple the rate for 2016 when 655 sessions were delivered to 160 current and former players.
The PFA’s head of welfare Michael Bennett believes this is a result of clubs and players becoming more aware of the union’s expertise in this area and a more general willingness across society to discuss mental-health issues.
Speaking to Press Association Sport at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, Bennett said: “We have been working hard to raise awareness of our services and I think the word has really spread now in terms of what we do.
“But when guys like Rio Ferdinand or Prince Harry talk about their issues in public, well, the floodgates open. We get calls from players, past and present, but also family members.
“I think it’s all about having the confidence to come forward. And I’m confident now that when people do come forward, we can help them.”
Bennett said the 30-year-old Lennon was now “in the best place for him” and was on the road to recovery.
A breakdown of 2016’s figures suggests addiction is the main problem for current players, with retired professionals more likely to come forward with concerns related to anxiety or depression.
“Gambling is probably our biggest issue,” said Bennett.
“We tend to get guys presenting with issues related to anger or stress but they are symptoms – the underlying problem will be gambling.”
This frank assessment of football’s gambling problem will only fuel the debate started by Joey Barton’s ban for betting-related offences, with many now questioning the close links between betting companies and professional football.
The PFA has run a 24-hour helpline since Gary Speed’s tragic death in 2012 and co-funds the Sporting Chance Clinic set up by former Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams in 2000. Last year, 24 PFA members completed the clinic’s residential course for health issues related to addiction.
Football’s historic child sex abuse scandal is another growing issue for Bennett’s team, with 26 members asking for help over the last six months. The sensitive nature of this work has meant bringing in more than 20 therapists with specific training for helping victims of abuse.
Bennett, now 47, started counselling after his own playing career was ruined by a serious knee injury at 21. He recovered enough to resume his career but he was never the same player and quit the game aged 29.
“I know what it’s like when you’re injured or out of contract,” said Bennett, who had two stints at Charlton and finished his league career at Brighton.
“You can feel like you have nowhere to go and nobody to talk to, but, for whatever reason, people started asking for my advice.
“I’m glad they did because I love this job – I enjoy it much more than when I played football.”