THE BLOG

What Football's Abuse Scandal Tells Us About Our Country's Mental Health

15/12/2016 16:09 GMT | Updated 15/12/2016 16:09 GMT

Eighty-three alleged abusers. Eight-nine football clubs involved. Hundreds of potential victims. This is what we know so far about the scale of football's abuse scandal. All of this horror revealed decades after the abuse took place. It took the courage of one man, Andy Woodward, to burst open the floodgates.

It is a dis-spiriting re-run of delayed revelations of abuse in so many public institutions who have allowed children in their care to be abused and then spent years refusing to see the truth. In a sense, we have all colluded in not seeing the truth.

Over the last two decades, we have also been aware of the rising tide of mental health problems. Earlier this year, the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey revealed that 1 in 6 of us has experienced a mental health problem in the last week. Not the last year or even the last month...the last week.

But are these two issues linked and what does football's abuse scandal tell us about our society's approach to mental health problems?

The complete answer will take years to decipher.

What we do know is that many of the players themselves who have come forward have spoken of the inner torment their abuse has caused. Several former players have said they contemplated suicide since being abused and others have described the acute symptoms of depression and anxiety, including emotional detachment, sleeplessness and panic attacks.

We know that abuse of all kinds is a significant risk factor for poor mental health. Adverse childhood events - like abuse - can lead to poorer health, poorer job prospects and poorer mental health. If the abuse happens repeatedly, the effect is worse still.

Indeed, evidence collated from the City of Philadelphia's Dept of Behavioural Health states that the biggest influence on our mental health is our environment and what happens to us in our lives (70%). Only 20% of causation is related to our genetic make-up, with the final 10% caused by the speed and quality of the care available.

But I believe the abuse scandal begs some deeper question about our culture; what does it say about our progress as a society that these men have had to wait decades to talk openly about experiences that have caused them such significant distress?

Not only does silence and secrecy increase the devastation for those who have been abused, it also makes it harder to prevent it happening to others. The onus must be on us as a society, not the people who have experienced abuse, to create the conditions where people feel able to talk when they feel safe and ready.

Men are an important barometer in evaluating how open we are culturally to discussing our own wellbeing. When we surveyed 2500 people living with mental health problems - the largest survey of its kind - 28% of men facing a mental health problem admitted that they had not sought medical help. This compared to 19% of women. Almost a third of men waited more than two years, or chose never to tell friend and family about their problems.

As long as suicide remains the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50, we need to fundamentally redress the cultural balance in favour of hearing and protecting people when they need help.

Many of us experience differing forms of trauma that continue to have an impact on our experience of life. Our ability to share and support each other through those experiences in a way that we feel comfortable is a really important part of being a mentally health country.

Evidence from our own research in the work place shows that the leading reason that employees do not talk to their employer about mental health issues is fear of discrimination. Still. In 2016, people believe that sharing their mental distress will disadvantage them. We need to create what we have coined the 'disclosure premium' which demonstrates to people the explicit benefits of finding the right time and place to talk. If we can't, we haven't got off the starting blocks in preventing mental health problems.

The Mental Health Foundation has taken a step towards this cultural re-balance this weekend. We are advertising at live Premier League games so that our advice can reach up to 10million people each game. It is our statement of intent that we want to be part of the answer in equipping this generation with the awareness and knowledge to manage their mental health proactively.

If the abuse scandal in football leads to a cultural shift that embraces the value of disclosure, we will have redeemed something thanks to the bravery of those who have already endured so much.

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