Barnsley FC legend Bobby Hassell is attempting to combat an ‘epidemic’ of depression and mental health issues within football which have affected him and many of his former team-mates. 

The 39-year-old, who played 299 games for the Reds in ten years at Oakwell and is now the club’s academy manager, has opened up about his own struggles to adapt to life after football.  He is working with the young players at Barnsley, as well former players who are experiencing problems after retiring. Hassell told the Chronicle: “It’s an epidemic. It is reported that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in this country and mental health problems are very prevalent in football. 

“The vast majority of sportspeople have struggled with some kind of depression or mental health issues during their professional career or when it has ended. It might only be a month or two or it might be several years. I know some of the most joyful people on the outside, who are secretly suffering from depression.75 per cent of elite sportspeople are divorced and/or bankrupt within five years of stopping, which is a massive statistic.

“I make myself open to anyone. A lot of ex-professionals and current players have reached out to me or I take cues off their social media and realise there may be a problem. I predominantly talk to sportspeople because I have been through the same issues as they have. I talk with many ex-players of my generation who are struggling. They have been through family crises, they have lost a lot of money and they feel like there is no hope.

“Some are even coaching or in jobs but it doesn’t satisfy them because it’s not the same as playing.  Those feelings are only temporary and it does pass eventually if you talk about it but, while you are in it, you may look for other solutions to end that pain. I would definitely encourage anyone of any walk of life to open up about what they are going through.”

Hassell, who is a Christian and father of four, admits he has had some ‘dark nights’ over the last two years. He said: “Moving between different phases in your life can be an emotional and testing journey and irrational thoughts can replace common sense thinking. Having a strong faith has provided me with a safety net and communicating with people within the Church helped me restore better judgement. Talking regularly and being open is scientifically proven to help you emotionally and psychologically.  I have been fine for the past year now with the support of that network. I am perhaps more fortunate than others that I do a job I love, so I have things to constantly keep me occupied and I look forward to the day-to-day running of the academy. A lot of people don’t have anything like that.” 

Bobby says there are various factors which can lead to current and ex-players struggling with their mental health. He said: “You play football from the age of four or five generally up until about 35 then it’s over overnight. There’s not enough support out there for people going through that transition.  When you stop playing, your phone stops ringing, and you suddenly only have one or two friends when you thought you had loads. A lot of ex-players realise people only liked them for what they did as a job and the money they had, not for who they are as a person. 

“Identity is the biggest part of it. You’re not a footballer anymore. A lot of people cannot handle not playing anymore or having the banter of the dressing room. You go from getting adrenaline rushes all the time on the pitch to nothing, and it is a bit like a drug addict coming off their drugs. Some players don’t see many options in terms of job opportunities because there are limited jobs for people with their skills.  It comes down to the smallest things. A lot of players stop exercising when they retire and that causes issues as exercise helps you mentally.

“I don’t think people should be embarrassed to talk about it. If they are struggling, they are struggling. No one will look down on them. I think a lot of former players see it as a weakness, but I see it as a strength to talk about it. Things happen in your life which cause a lot of pain and there are times when you need help.”

Hassell gets irritated by an assumption that the wealthy lifestyle of a footballer is a protection from mental health issues.  He said: “I hear a lot people saying, ‘how can someone be depressed when they are a professional footballer and they earn loads of money?’  “It’s a load of nonsense, we are all human beings. I have known loads of millionaires in football and outside football, and a large number of them have suffered at some point with mental or emotional well-being issues. I had a nice house, a good car and money but it didn’t make me happy. Life is about relationships and family and, when you don’t have them, other things don’t fill the void.”

Hassell thinks the players coming through now will struggle even more. He said: “I am more concerned about the next generation. I see a lot of depression in young kids and they don’t have the same resilience as my generation. They don’t know how to talk. They have probably never been rejected because their parents do everything for them so, when it happens, they don’t know how to react.

“Social media is a massive hindrance because you’re covering up your real life with a mask and then you also get a lot of criticism from outside sources, it is hard for young players to take and it has a big impact on them.  “The modern player looks at everything that is said about them which can be very harmful.  

"At Barnsley, we are quite good. We mentor our kids, we try to teach them life skills and the door is always open.  I have spoken about my personal experiences to our scholars to try to educate them.  I want to make sure that every lad who leaves us at 18 has at least a B license (coaching qualification) so that they can stay in football straight away if they want to.  Hopefully we will get to that point in the next one or two years.

“We have a club chaplin who speaks to all the first team players. We have had players in the past dealing with depression, then the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) take over. Academies all now have a ‘player care representative’, which is mandatory.  I would love to see someone in that role for every first team squad as well.”