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Meet the footballers tackling the male mental health crisis

Marvin Sordell and Will Miller during their football playing days in 2019. (Getty Images)
Marvin Sordell and Will Miller during their football playing days in 2019. (Getty Images)

Will Miller and Marvin Sordell have been cheered on by thousands of fans in their careers as professional footballers, but now there's another reason the friends and former teammates are being applauded - tackling the male mental health crisis.

Sordell, 31, played in the Premier League as well as representing England U21 and Team GB at the London 2012 Olympic Games, while Miller, 26, who came through Tottenham Hotspur’s youth set-up, played for the England under-18s and Burton Albion.

But having both experienced challenges during their footballing careers, physically and mentally, the pair have hung up their boots to focus on a new challenge. They've joined forces and written and directed a short film, BROKE.

Released to mark World Mental Health Day, the film tells the story of a young professional footballer, Moe (played by Ted Lasso’s Moe Hashim) fighting to keep his career alive when he suffers a major injury setback.

Exploring the themes of male identity and self-worth, it aims to raise awareness of the support needed for aspiring and professional football players falling out of the game, as well as highlighting the wider universal issue of male mental health.

Read more: Robbie Williams says life in Take That impacted mental health of several bandmates

Miller and Sordell hope the short film will raise awareness about male mental health, Miller pictured with the film's star, Moe. (Supplied/ONEIGHTY)
Will Miller and Marvin Sordell hope the short film will raise awareness about male mental health, Miller pictured with the film's star, Moe. (Supplied/ONEIGHTY)

Miller and Sordell are well placed to shine a light on the subject, having both faced their own mental health struggles.

For Miller it was the end of his football playing career, at 23, which really took a toll on his wellbeing.

“I really underestimated how difficult it was going to be to suddenly lose that piece of myself,” he explains. “That identity that had been building since I was five-years-old and was the dream for so long.”

Sordell, meanwhile, battled clinical depression during his football playing days, which culminated in a failed suicide attempt in 2013.

"I always look back on that time and tell people that it's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says recalling the period.

"That sounds like a crazy thing to say, and obviously that will be a difficult thing to hear for a lot of people who are in that position right now.

"But without going through it to the extent that I did, I wouldn't be the man I am today, I wouldn't have the strength I have and I wouldn't have started this journey."

Read more: 'It was good that it hurt': Gary Barlow reveals bulimia struggle was act of self-harm

The "journey" he refers to began when he started writing poetry as a creative outlet for his emotions.

One particular poem, Denis Prose (an anagram of ‘depression’), which Sordell showed to Miller, was turned into a film by the duo's newly formed production company and creative agency, ONEIGHTY, co-founded in 2019.

Sordell on the set of BROKE, which has been released to mark World Mental Health Day. (Supplied/ONEIGHTY)
Sordell on the set of BROKE, which has been released to mark World Mental Health Day. (Supplied/ONEIGHTY)

As well as BROKE Miller, Sordell and the company's third co-founder, Maxwell Harris-Tharp, have previously produced a film in a show of support for the Heads Up campaign, which also aimed to throw light on the “harrowing” statistics surrounding men’s mental health and suicide.

Recent research, by FIFPRO, revealed that more than one in three footballers will suffer from a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive-disorder (OCD) throughout their lives.

But, of course the problem is not confined to football.

According to Mind’s Get It Off Your Chest Report two in five men (43%) admit to regularly feeling worried or low, an increase from 37% in 2009.

Even more soberingly, a recent Samaritans Suicide Statistics report found that men in the UK are three times more likely to die by suicide than women, with those aged between 45 and 49 nearly four times that of women of the same age.

Read more: How to help someone struggling with their mental health

But things are gradually starting to change, with stats from Mind revealing that men are now almost three times more likely to see a therapist when worried or low than in 2009, and are now equally as willing as women to see their GP.

No doubt helped, in part, by the increase in the number of high profile men, like Miller and Sordell, using their platform to open up about their struggles.

This includes four-time World Snooker Champion Mark Selby tweeted last year to explain that he was seeking professional help for depression, while Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios admitted feeling so low that he had not only self-harmed but had also considered taking his own life.

“It’s so important that people who have a voice speak and be heard,” Sordell says. “To see men who are notoriously supposed to be very masculine, not crying, not being emotional, speak about their feelings can be really powerful.

"When you have people in high profile positions, that are idolised by young children, and see them opening up, it sparks something. And makes people think it is ok to be having these conversations."

While some strides have been made in terms of men’s help-seeking behaviours, the pair believe there is still much more to be done to ensure that men feel able to reach out for help.

"It's a progressive thing," explains Miller. "A lot is changing, but the challenge is breaking down the stigma of not feeling able to open up and talk about it.

"So we need to continue to push that, continue to understand, be aware and be compassionate. We need to build on the good work that's been done."

Watch: Prince William talks male suicide prevention at James' Place

One of the issues slowing the progress, Miller believes, is the fact that mental health is not yet treated in the same way as a physical ailment.

“When we stopped playing football, we jumped straight into ONEIGHTY and gave ourselves no break,” he explains.

“My dad said to me, you didn’t give yourself a full stop to football, time to deal with that and rest. If you’re physically injured you would take time to let your body recover, but instead I just put my blinkers on, went straight into the next thing and never gave my mind time to deal with that and cope with it.”

He goes on to describe the importance of mental fitness, and normalising it, particularly for men.

“People will go to the gym and work on their physique, keep fit and look after themselves in that way, but we should be doing the same with our mental health,” he explains.

“I don't think we’re at that point yet, but I think that's where we should aim to get to.”

While both men acknowledge the role being creative has played in improving their mental wellbeing, giving them platforms away from football to express themselves, they also recognise the importance of speaking up.

“The world of football is a is a very strange one,” Sordell explains. “And we don't really talk about mental health and how we're feeling even when we’re sat together in a dressing room for years.”

Read more: Why aren’t men seeking help for their mental health

Miller on the set of BROKE. (Supplied/ONEIGHTY)
Miller on the set of BROKE. (Supplied/ONEIGHTY)

Miller adds: “Talking about these things are difficult, but they're important. It's not easy, but you shouldn't ignore this stuff. You've got to deal with it because otherwise it is going to weigh on you."

They hope the film will highlight the struggles many men face in terms of challenging feelings of identity and self-worth, not just in football, but universally, and encourage them to seek support if it starts to have a knock-on effect on their wellbeing.

“I hope it will allude to the fact that when these things happen, you need to confront it and deal with it, because I didn’t for a long time," says Miller.

"I didn’t talk about my transition out football, or the fact that wasn't playing football anymore. Every time someone asked me I'd shut it and not talk about it. I didn’t deal with it. And it definitely started to change me, change my personality.”

Miller says therapy was the key to unlocking his feelings.

“As soon as I started speaking about it everything opened up and physically I felt the release the weight of what I was carrying,” he says.

As for the advice they’d give their younger selves, the message is clear: don’t stay silent.

“Mine would definitely be don't lock it up. Don't suppress it,” Miller says without hesitation. “You've got to acknowledge it, communicate it, let it out and confront it or it builds and builds and becomes a bigger thing.”

Sordell’s hindsight advice is not so straight forward.

“It's a tough question, because I’m partly glad I went through that journey, because it's given me a real perspective and understanding,” he explains.

“People often say I'm sorry that happened to you or ask me if I wish I hadn’t gone through it to the extent that I did, but I believe it was necessary for me and my growth as a human being, as a person, as a friend and as a voice.

“So I probably couldn't give any advice to myself. Just watch, listen, write the story, and try to have faith it will be okay.”

Where to seek help

CALM's helpline and webchat are open from 5pm until midnight, 365 days a year. Call CALM on 0800 58 58 58 or chat to their trained helpline staff online, it’s free, anonymous and confidential.

You can also contact Samaritans free on 116 123 or view other ways to get in touch with the charity.

Or for more information about mental health and how to get help visit Mind.