England

Mental health takes centre stage in England

The big screen inside the stadium displays a short film in support of the Heads Up Campaign
© Getty Images
  • Heads Up weekend aims to get fans in England talking about mental health
  • The FA and Heads Together leading campaign
  • Teams throughout men’s and women’s football taking part

Football’s power to unify is one of its strongest qualities. The game touches individuals from every walk of life, from every corner of the globe, and is a shared love that has the capacity to get people talking.

Up and down English stadiums this February, the hope is that football will get those inside them opening up about mental health, thanks to the ‘Heads Up’ campaign, which is being spearheaded by the FA and Heads Together.

While people all too often picture mental health issues as something that only arises at the very extremes, the campaign hopes to change perceptions and show that mental health deserves the same care and consideration as physical health. It also hopes to raise fan awareness about offering support to those around them and to get them talking.

“We’re looking to generate the biggest national conversation ever on mental health,” Godric Smith, Chair of Heads Up and Director of Cambridge United, told FIFA.com.

“It makes a very big statement about the importance that football attaches to mental health. It also sends a very important message that football can play a very big part in terms of encouraging people to open up on a subject that has been quite challenging in the past, with quite a lot of taboo and stigma.”

A united effort

Teams at all levels of the men’s and women’s games will be involved across 8-9 and 14-17 February, from the Premier League and Women’s Super League, right down to semi-pro of National League sides.

A cause championed by FA President HRH The Duke of Cambridge, some of the game’s biggest players have been getting involved with starting the conversation about mental health. After January’s eye-catching ‘Take A Minute’ campaign, which saw every FA Cup third round match start a minute later to encourage people to use that time to think about their mental health, now the aim is to get people speaking about it.

“Having players coming out and talking about these things and normalising that conversation, can only be beneficial in encouraging fans and people right across society to feel that they can do likewise,” Smith explained.

“Talking about an issue that historically has been seen as quite dark and quite challenging, where showing vulnerability was a weakness, flipping that and showing vulnerability can be a strength has been extraordinarily important.”

“We all have mental health, in the same way that we all have physical health. And we will all face ups and downs in life which will affect it. It’s time we start taking our mental fitness as seriously as we do our physical fitness, and that starts with talking.”

Message to feature in every Heads Up Weekend matchday programme from HRH The Duke of Cambridge

Players themselves have both on-field pressures and off-field ones – like challenges with bereavement or relationships – that can impact mental health, and clubs have been increasingly doing what they can to support those playing, and those supporting.

“There’s some brilliant work happening in clubs right across the country and the opportunity we have this weekend is for the clubs to shine more of a light on that and for players to talk about the issue in a way that perhaps we haven’t seen.”

Smith’s own Cambridge United have put a number of programmes into action in a bid to be a ‘mentally healthy club’. These range from giving coaches training to aid supporting players, going out into schools to give young people the tools to deal with potential challenges, mental health drop-in services for fans and a network of individuals around the club available should people just want to talk.

Having first been involved in mental health campaigning over 30 years ago, Smith is hoping the progress made so far is only going to continue. “Seeing how attitudes have shifted since then has been very encouraging. I think there’s still some way to go but I think we’ve made a lot of progress as a society. There’s now a fantastic opportunity to take it one step further.”

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