Lincoln High School
You don’t hear a lot about the mental health of athletes, especially professional athletes, but this is an area that demands increased societal attention. The stakes are high. Left untreated, mental health conditions can lead to suicide. Responding to a study that found that ¼ of all professional soccer players showed signs of depression and anxiety, the global soccer organization, FIFA, is taking action to deal proactively with the problem.
One example of mental illness in a professional soccer player leading to a tragic outcome involves German soccer star, Andreas Biermann. After concealing his condition for years, Biermann announced publicly that he was depressed. Shortly after his announcement, his Bundesliga club, St. Pauli, declined to extend his contract. When he couldn’t find a spot on any other club, he was forced into retirement. At age 29 and with two children, his soccer career was over. He later wrote a book, “Depression: Red Card,” in which he revealed that he tried to take his own life on three occasions. He discouraged athletes suffering from similar conditions to tell anyone, as doing so would jeopardize their careers. Last July, he committed suicide. Biermann’s case echoes the 2009 suicide of German goalkeeper Robert Enke.
Mental health issues are stained with the negative views of society, and these views are heightened under the bright lights of an athletic arena. Discrimination and prejudice cause athletes to suppress mental health conditions for years. For this reason, FIFA is beginning a research program called “Mental Health and Sport.” The goal of the program is to minimize or eliminate the negative views toward athletes with mental health conditions and to create a safe place for them to come forward and receive treatment without ridicule or stereotyping for their conditions.
Birgit Prinz and Edgar Schmitt head up the FIFA program. Both were German national team soccer players, and Prinz was FIFA’s World Player of the Year for three years. Now a sports psychologist, Prinz is using her experiences as a player and a psychologist to create a program that will help players in ways specifically designed to help them, while simultaneously building public awareness about the issues and addressing the taboos concerning mental illness in sports.
The research program will start by studying the highs and lows of a soccer player’s career and retirement. Next, they will turn their focus to the different risk factors and ways to prevent mental health conditions in players. Finally, they will study how sports affect recreational athletes’ mental health. Additionally, the program wants to send a clear message that our heroes are human too.
With this program, FIFA should help alter the stigma regarding mental health in the eyes of fans and teams and may influence other sports facing similar problems to create programs for their athletes. One sport that would benefit would be American football, where the macho culture has swept the side effects of concussions and other serious injuries under the rug for far too long. While it may not be an all-encompassing step forward, the FIFA Mental Health and Sport program could end up saving the lives of athletes around the world.