Peterborough United lead the way in football’s mental health battle

It’s OK not to feel OK. Six little words that can make all the difference, and the motto of suicide prevention charity If U Care Share.

When a player at Peterborough United was struggling with mental health issues a couple of years ago, the club contacted League Football Education (LFE), a body established by the Football League and the Professional Footballers Association, in search of support.

LFE put the club in touch with If U Care Share and their involvement was so effective that Peterborough have maintained the relationship ever since. This is an example of the safeguarding system working as it should.

“We had a player who was not feeling great, and to be honest If U Care Share were absolutely amazing,” says Kayleigh Stent, Peterborough’s Academy Operations Manager. “They sent through worksheets, they came and did a workshop, they supported me to help the player. I can’t praise them enough for the work they’ve done.”

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. In football, a sport still embedded in a macho environment, the stigma of mental health remains a primary concern. It’s for this reason Peterborough have looked to tackle the issue head on, inviting If U Care Share into the club to encourage the players to talk about any problems they may be experiencing.

This September the charity held a workshop with the development squad, reinforcing the message that it’s ok not to feel ok. “It’s a big subject in football,” Kayleigh continues. “It’s hugely important to give this message to the young players. Footballers drive around in nice cars, but just because they’ve got the nice cars and the money, they’re not always okay. People need to be able to know they can talk.”

The players were expecting the workshops to be dark and gloomy, says Kayleigh, but instead the atmosphere was positive and upbeat as they found themselves participating in a number of eye-opening activities.

For one of the exercises, a youth team player wore 10 different t-shirts, each one emblazoned with a different male role – father, brother, son, boyfriend, and so on. The idea was that these titles don’t necessarily reveal what a person might be carrying around with them – take off the t-shirts and you learn a bit more about someone.

“For another activity we went through different celebrities, such as Stephen Fry and David Beckham, and the players were asked out of all these pictures of people who appear to be happy and wealthy, do any of them have mental health issues. The players were like ‘no, of course not’, but obviously David Beckham has spoken about his OCD, Stephen Fry has bipolar disorder, and so it was good for the boys to see what was being explained.”

If U Care Share was established in 2005 in memory of Daniel O’Hare. Daniel took his own life at 19 years of age. A popular young man who loved football, he had no previous history of mental health problems nor had he shown any signs of his intentions. His younger brother, Matthew, now helps to lead the foundation’s workshops to help others in vulnerable situations.

“We wanted to do something to remember Dan,” says Matthew. “If we can prevent one person going through what we went through as a family, that’s a job done for me. I hope to think we’ve done that.”

The charity aims to engage young men before their personal problems escalate into a crisis. In many ways, football is the perfect medium to communicate that help is available.

“We work in football because it gives us the ability to talk to so many men. The issue of mental health is becoming more recognised in the game. Footballers aren’t protected from this – mental health is a societal problem, not a football problem. But if football starts the conversation, how many more conversations will follow?”

Kayleigh has witnessed how quickly that vital conversation can spread. After asking the players if they would like to support If U Care Share’s Inside-Out campaign on social media, which promotes the need for men to talk about mental health, she was delighted with the response.

“This year we decided that we wanted to run the campaign through all ages, from the Under-9s right through to the youth team, so that they’re aware of If U Care Share and what they promote. All the squads were keen to get involved. After the youth team workshop we did the team photo and it wasn’t just, ‘right let’s stand and pose’, the players wanted to get the wristbands out and were really involved.”

At Peterborough, it seems the message is getting across. The hope is that no one else will feel they have to suffer in silence.

“It’s a powerful message especially the way If U Care Share deliver it. It’s really hard-hitting and you can see it sinking into the boys,” says Kayleigh.

“Hopefully none of them have to deal with mental health problems in their life but at least they know there is somebody to talk to, know that they’re not alone. And I think that’s the most important message: knowing that you’re not alone.”

For more information about If U Care Share, you can visit their website here.

Peterborough United lead the way in football’s mental health battle
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