Chris Kirkland praises PFA's mental health work but says football can do more
Former England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland believes football clubs should employ full-time mental health experts to make early interventions when players need help.
The 36-year-old was speaking at the Professional Footballers' Association first mental health and well-being conference at St George's Park. His comments came in the week he revealed his own struggles with anxiety and depression.
Having already had some suicidal thoughts during his time at Sheffield Wednesday, Preston and Bury, Kirkland told the conference he finally approached the PFA for help when a friend died from cancer and he saw the impact it had on his friend's family.
But when asked if he would have told an expert at any of those clubs about his problems earlier, he said yes.
"I think if somebody had really asked me, I would have talked," said Kirkland.
"That's why I think clubs need somebody there full-time. The situation is much better now, and the PFA does some great work, but I think more can be put in place for players during their careers and especially afterwards.
"The PFA has realised there is a huge mental health problem in the game and I will do anything I can to help."
Kirkland was joined at the conference by England defenders Gemma Bonner and Steven Caulker, both of whom have suffered bouts of depression that have affected their lives on and off the pitch.
They explained how the PFA's network of more than 150 counsellors has helped them deal with their issues, get back on the pitch and make them happier people again, which was a message repeated by the PFA's head of player welfare Michael Bennett.
Former England youth international Bennett sustained a serious knee injury when he was just breaking through at Wimbledon in 1991 and, while he did return and play another 150 league games for seven different clubs, the mental stress caused by the injury forced him to retire at 29.
Dr Vincent Gouttebarge, the chief medical officer at the world players' association FIFPro, explained that professional footballers are far from being immune to mental health issues because of their wealth.
He told the conference about research FIFPro has conducted with 800 current and former players in 11 countries that revealed there are 640 different "stressors" a footballer can experience during and after their careers.
The most obvious are injuries, worries about selection and new contracts, and they often manifest themselves in emotional distress, anxiety or depression, sleep disturbance or alcohol abuse.
Of these, anxiety and depression is the most common with nearly two in five current players saying they have experienced those feelings, while one in four former players has had problems with alcohol.
A serious injury multiplies the risk of emotional distress by six times and disturbed sleep by a factor of four, said Gouttebarge, who added that nearly every former player who had a mental health issue during their career said it affected their performance.
This is a message the Football Association has heeded and its head of performance medicine Dr Charlotte Cowie said her team has been asking England players to complete confidential "start of camp player check-in" questionnaires which ask them to rate their stress levels and flag up any issues.
This has been trialled with the women's team and some of the age-group sides and will become standard practice over the next year, with "mental well-being champions" also appointed for each team.