Extent of mental illness in football revealed by new study

Updated: April 3, 2014

The complexities of mental illness in football have been on the agenda again this week, after a new mental health study revealed 26% of active professional footballers suffer from depression or anxiety.

Commissioned by the World Footballers’ Association, FIFPro, the report further reveals that 39% of retired players experience mental health issues and 32% reported adverse alcohol behaviour after quitting the game.

The first of its kind on such a global scale, the report was overseen by FIFPro Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge who used a scaled questionnaire to measure outcomes such as anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, alcohol use, smoking and general nutrition.

More than three hundred active and former professional players from the United States, Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Holland, Australia and New Zealand took part in the study, which Gouttebarge hopes can now help improve the overall health of footballers.

“Contrary to popular belief, the life of a professional footballer has some dark sides,” Gouttebarge said. “Former professional footballers report more mental health problems than current players, endorsing that the period just after retirement from professional football is a critical one for many players.

Gouttebarge also added that mental illness among former professional footballers occurs more often than in other measured populations, saying the sport was ‘littered with psychological pitfalls’.

It is a subject that was thrust into the spotlight last year following the BBC’s ground-breaking documentary, Football’s Suicide Secret.

In it, former Burnley defender and PFA Chairman Clarke Carlisle explored the relationship the illness has with English football and spoke candidly about his own battle with depression and attempted suicide.

This is the first time a study has been undertaken on such a level however, and FIFPro hope to establish a new benchmark in the field by releasing the results of their work.

By revealing mental illness in world football is widespread, they also hope to increase awareness and acceptance at the highest level of the game.

Gouttebarge believes football’s authorities must now put provisions in place to enable players to talk honestly about the subject without fear of recrimination, saying: “Football stakeholders have a collective responsibility to remove the stigma associated with mental illness.”

“All players, whether active or retired, can learn optimal behaviours and coping skills to manage the symptoms of mental illness.

“When it comes to any health problem, be it physical or mental, over the short or long term, the minimum standard is to raise self-awareness of players about these issues. They need to be aware of what might occur during and after their football career

The following statistics are taken from FIFPro’s official website:


  • 180 active professional footballers participated, of which 60% were playing for a club of the highest national league at the time of the study.
  • 26% of active players reported suffering from depression/anxiety and adverse nutritional behavior.
  • 19% reported adverse alcohol behaviour.
  • 3% reported having low self-esteem.
  • 7% said they were smoking
  • 5% reported signs of burnout and 10% were found to be in distress


  • 121 former professional footballers participated, of which almost 65% spent the majority of their careers playing for a club of the highest national league.
  • 39% reported suffering from depression/anxiety
  • 42% reported adverse nutritional behaviour.
  • 32% reported adverse alcohol behaviour.
  • 5% reported having a low self-esteem
  • 12% said they were smoking
  • 15% showed signs of burnout and 18% were found to be in distress


If you have been affected by anything that has been discussed in the article, please find below a list of useful contacts and information.

Anxiety UK
tel. 08444 775 774
web: anxietyuk.org.uk
Information, counselling, helpline and online support for those suffering from anxiety disorders.

Bipolar UK
web: bipolaruk.org.uk 
tel: 020 7931 6480
Support for people with bipolar disorder (including hypomania) and their families and friends.

British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)
tel. 0161 705 4304
web: babcp.com
Online directory of psychotherapists.

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) 
tel. 01455 883 300
web: bacp.co.uk
For Information about counselling and therapy. See website or sister website, itsgoodtotalk, for details of local practitioners.

Carers UK
helpline: 0808 808 7777
web: carersuk.org
Information and advice for carers.

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
tel. 020 3178 2199
web: cnhc.org.uk
Regulatory body with a register of complementary therapy practitioners.

Depression Alliance
tel. 0845 123 2320
web: depressionalliance.org
Information and support for anyone affected by depression.

Hearing Voices Network
tel. 0114 271 8210
web: hearing-voices.org
Local support groups for people who hear voices.

NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence)
web: nice.org.uk 
Evidence-based guidelines on treatments.

24-hour helpline: 08457 90 90 90
email: jo@samaritans.org
web: samaritans.org
Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, Chris
PO Box 90 90
Emotional support for anyone feeling down, experiencing distress or struggling to cope.

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