Players’ union boss Fraser Wishart hopes a new support scheme for footballers suffering with depression will prevent any more tragic loss of life.
The PFA Scotland chief executive is backing the Support With Sport initiative launched by the Hampden Sports Clinic aimed at addressing mental health issues amongst Scotland’s footballers.
A survey of over 600 players from Scotland’s four senior divisions carried out as part of the project revealed that 64 per cent had faced up to depression themselves or knew a team-mate who was struggling.
Now as part of the scheme, 40 of those respondents have been flagged up as having “significant issue” – with 15 being sent for intensive treatment.
The study’s release comes just four months after former Clyde, Queen of the South, Livingston and Falkirk midfielder Chris Mitchell took his own life after a secret battle with depression.
Now Wishart hopes the new initiative, which is being led by Scottish Football Association medical consultant Dr John MacLean, will ensure no-one else has to suffer alone.
He said: “What happened to Chris Mitchell was an absolute tragedy. We have met with his family a number of times and they have been so positive about the situation – as positive about the situation as they can be.
“They want to do something that can help players and with this new scheme, we have done that.
“In Chris’ case, nobody saw the signs coming. That is where this network can help in future. The player doesn’t need to tell anybody he doesn’t want to know.
“They don’t have to tell their family, their girlfriend, their wife, their manager – there is a confidential helpline. If they phone it, it will be dealt with.
“In many cases PFA Scotland won’t even know. It goes straight to the professionals and will be dealt with in a proper, confidential manner.
“Hopefully this can be a real help to anybody who finds themselves in the kind of situation Chris did.”
While depression was once a taboo subject matter, the tragic death of former Wales boss Gary Speed and the honesty of Hibernian manager Neil Lennon in talking about the problems he has faced have helped bring it out into the open.
Wishart admits the PFA previously found it difficult to deal with requests for help, although he did praise rep Stuart Lovell, whose efforts prevented Forfar forward David Cox following the same distressing path as Mitchell.
“We are starting to de-stigmatise this issue,” he said. “Many years ago when I was a player, players wouldn’t speak about anything in a dressing room. It would be seen as a weakness.
“But things have changed now and players are happier coming forward.
“The figures from the study might frighten some people but not us. We’ve taken a lot of calls and now believe we’re in an excellent position to help.
“We got guys like David Cox at Forfar. He has had his issues over the years. For a long time my staff were the only point of contact and guys like Stuart Lovell who works with us was a rock for David.
“He has been very open about his position. He might not be here had it not been for the support he had, it was as bleak as that.
“Stuart took that situation on himself but now we have a huge professional network to ensure these guys get the support they need.”
The study has identified a number of depression triggers, including injuries and contract worries.
But Wishart also believes managers must be given help to deal with players who need support.
As part of their coaching training, new managers will now receive training from the likes of Dr MacLean on how to spot the tell-tale signs of mental health problems.
That was welcomed by Inverness boss Richie Foran, who joined Wishart and Dr MacLean at Hampden to launch the scheme,
He said: “As a manager I feel it is my responsibility to look after the well-being of my players.
“These guys want to play. The lads I left out at the weekend will be feeling a bit low and that’s why I think as a manger you have to keep an eye on them, get them into the office and let them know how important they are to your plans.
“Hopefully attitudes are changing. It’s not a weakness if you have depression. It’s not a weakness to make that call to the doctor. By asking for help you are actually a strong, strong person.”