'I retired from football at 25—I was lonely and isolated, my mental health was suffering'

MONTPELLIER, FRANCE - AUGUST 01: Lizzie Durack of Chelsea during their training session on August 01, 2018 in Montpellier, France. (Photo by Chelsea Football Club/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Lizzie Durack, who previously played for Chelsea, says there are specific challenges in women's football that can exacerbate mental health struggles. (Getty Images)

Every year, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind in England, and 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week, according to Mind.

The amount of people with common mental health problems went up by 20% between 1993 to 2014, in both men and women.

And following David Beckham's Netflix special 'Beckham', where he opened up for the first time about his depression after the 1998 World Cup loss, a collective of leading professional football players and community organisations have launched Create the Space, a movement that aims to “equip football at all levels with the knowledge, skills and resources to understand, prevent and deal with mental health issues”.

The collective comprises top players, who themselves, have experienced mental health challenges, including Tottenham Hotspur's acting-captain Molly Bartrip, England and Chelsea FC left-back Ben Chilwell, and England and Arsenal forward Beth Mead.

According to Common Goal, a global impact movement for the football industry that launched the initiative, Create the Space will “not only use football as a tool to tackle mental health at a grassroots level, but also enable the elite level of the sport to become a space where everyone feels encouraged and comfortable to express themselves both on and off the pitch”.

Speaking with Lizzie Durack:

While the movement is a welcome development, says Lizzie Durack, a former professional footballer, she warns that there is still “a long way to go” to support footballers’ wellbeing. Durack, who was born in Sydney, Australia, began her career in 2012 when she played on the North West Sydney Koalas and later, for Western Sydney Wanderers.

She went on to travel to England to train with the England women’s national under-19 football team and was signed on to Everton Football Club in Liverpool. She also attended Harvard University to study human development regenerative biology and played for the Harvard Crimson soccer team. In 2018, Durack signed for Chelsea, but retired from professional football a year later.

CHESHUNT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 12: Lizzie Durack  of Chelsea Women on December 12, 2018 in Cheshunt, England. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)
Lizzie Durack retired from professional football at the age of 25 in 2019, earlier than many people expected her to. (Getty Images)

She tells Yahoo UK that the biggest challenges facing young footballers in the UK involve abuse on social media, and the journey from youth football to professional football, which often sees young people taken out of school.

Durack said she was lucky enough to be one of the few players who was allowed to play for England teams while attending university in the US, which allowed her to have a formal education that would give her the chance to pursue a career after football.

The way kids and teenagers are taken out of normal schooling to pursue football heightens the mental health implications if they don't make it as a professional

She said: “The way kids and teenagers are taken out of normal schooling to pursue football through the academy systems heightens the mental health implications they face if they don’t make it as a professional footballer.

"The mental health issues that occur in late teenage-hood and through retirement, whether by injury or by choice, become worse because they have such a lack of options.

“Unfortunately, many players before me and of my generation didn’t finish their A-levels or get the chance to go to university because they were told they needed to stay in the UK and focus on football.

"Then if they didn’t make it as a professional or retired, they just felt lost. It’s really only the top players who get the opportunity to continue working in the industry after they retired from playing, whether it’s coaching or going into the business - but a large proportion of players are left in no man’s land.”

Durack recalls how difficult it was to come to terms with her retirement in 2019, at the age of 25, which came after several years of feeling “lonely and isolated” while at Everton and realising she wanted to pursue something different after a year at Chelsea.

I struggled when I retired, which was a lot earlier than a lot of people would have expected me to...it’s crushing to have the realisation that you’re not going to be able to achieve some of the goals you set when you were younger

“I struggled with this when I retired, which was a lot earlier than a lot of people would have expected me to,” she says. “Deep down, it was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made. It’s crushing to have the realisation that you’re not going to be able to achieve some of the goals you set when you were younger - you have to be proud of what you’ve done, but also accept that you need to step away from the game.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 07: Lizzie Durack looks on at half time during the Women's International Friendly match between England and USA at Wembley Stadium on October 07, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Harriet Lander - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)
Lizzie Durack says the gender pay gap affects female footballer's mental health. (Getty Images)

She described a career in professional football as a “rollercoaster” of emotions, which can sometimes exacerbate mental health struggles.

“There’s no greater high than winning a big game, or getting a big save as a goalkeeper. Those are highs you don’t experience in normal life - but the lows are equally as extreme and you’re constantly being hurdled up and down.”

Gender pay gap in football

A particular challenge faced by female footballers that can worsen mental well-being is the gender pay gap.

Last year, an investigation by The Telegraph revealed that Women’s Super League (WSL) players were earning as little as £20,000 a year. The BBC reported that the average WSL player earned around £47,000 a year, which is significantly more than the lower end of the scale, but still a vastly smaller figure than the salaries reportedly earned by men in the Premier League.

Reports have suggested that the top 10 male footballers in the Premier League earn more than £250,000 a week, more than 52 times what the top earners in women’s football in England are being paid.

“All footballers are usually living away from home and family with teammates and coaches they may not know very well, in foreign cities they may not know very well, and, in women’s football, not being paid very well,” Durack says.

During her time in Liverpool, she was working with a difficult coach whose moods were unpredictable. “I developed situational anxiety as a result, I was nervous to go to training everyday. There were very few resources because the club was so underfunded, and I wasn’t earning enough money to be able to seek private therapy.”

The UK's famously hyper-passionate fans have also created an environment in which football players face abuse on social media on a regular basis when a game doesn’t go their way. Female footballers are especially vulnerable to online abuse and misogyny that comes from “a generation of older white men who don’t believe women should be playing football”, Durack adds.

Female footballers are especially vulnerable to online abuse and misogyny that comes from “a generation of older white men who don’t believe women should be playing football"

“You can go to any women football player’s account and find some disgusting abuse there. It’s an added layer of discomfort that players try to ignore and push under the carpet, but there should be mental health support for dealing with this aspect of the job. Whenever I posted a photo on Twitter (now X), I’d get comments like, ‘Why are you even bothering?’ or ‘Get back to the kitchen’.”

She points to the recent Netflix docuseries Beckham, which showed the extent of abuse David Beckham faced following England’s loss at the 1998 World Cup and caused him to fall into depression.

Durack hopes the series will show people how unacceptable it is to continually abuse players, adding: “To see that level of abuse towards a human being is disgusting and happens all the time. The death threats and the impact he has is insane and should never be tolerated.”

How 'Create The Space' plan to help the mental health of footballers

Based on the belief that everyone, at every level of the game, has the potential to become a mental health champion, Common Goal will team up with Football Beyond Borders in the UK to pilot an integrated, experiential and holistic programme to empower mental health champions, ensuring that individuals throughout the football ecosystem are equipped to be supportive on and off the pitch.

Alongside Football Beyond Borders, Common Goal is also working with other leading community organisations who work with thousands of youth participants at high risk of exclusion such as Street League, Girls United and Bloomsbury Football. Common Goal has also worked in collaboration with leading mental health experts and institutions in the UK, U.S. and globally.

The mental health activist and former Premier League striker, Marvin Sordell, 32, said: “We are moving on from “something needs to be done” to “we are doing something”. Create the Space is action-based, applicable to the entire football ecosystem and this is a massive opportunity that can be something that can save lives.The football industry is better equipped than it was 10 years ago in terms of mental health, but it doesn’t mean that we are there. If someone had a broken leg you wouldn’t ignore it and you’d know exactly what needs to be done. Create the Space is the starting point of equipping everyone at every level of football with the ability to understand and manage mental health.”

More players, clubs and corporate entities will be announced as they join the movement.

Watch: Why Are Women Paid Less In Sport? | The Rundown By HuffPost

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