Anxiety, depression and eating disorders represent significant, if often hidden, problems among elite female footballers competing in the Women’s Super League and Championship.
The first academic study to explore the prevalence of mental health issues among leading women players in England has revealed that 36% of the 115 who completed a confidential survey displayed eating disorder symptoms. Meanwhile 11% exhibited indications of moderate to severe anxiety and a further 11% struggled with moderate to severe depression.
While similar rates of anxiety and depression have been recorded in both the general population and other elite athletes of both genders, the number of eating disorders among female footballers are seemingly higher.
Ninety per cent of participants believed that receiving some form of psychological help would enhance their careers and 86% indicated they wanted or needed clinical support at some point during their playing years.
Lead author Carly Perry, from the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, noted that psychological back-up was available at only 50% of clubs represented by participants. “It is critical that football clubs encourage help-seeking behaviours,” said Perry, who is particularly concerned about the prevalence of eating disorders in the top two tiers of the English game.
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Indeed weight, and more specifically, controlling it proved a recurring theme. “Our findings reported that 35% footballers were currently trying to lose weight and 45% reported attempting to lose weight in the previous four weeks,” said Perry. “Importantly, this data was collected during the competitive season. Research is therefore warranted as to how and why players are trying to lose weight during the season.”
She is concerned that eating disorders may become almost normalised in a playing context. “Highly disordered eating scores were not associated with currently needing psychological support,” said Perry. “We believe this finding warrants further investigation as this could indicate that disordered eating symptoms are not self-recognised. Instead it’s possible they are normalised in the footballers’ sporting environment.”
Anxiety and depression appear to have been heightened by a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and the game’s rapid recent professionalisation. “In addition to the increased stress that elite athletes faced during the Covid-19 pandemic we speculate that the new demands placed upon elite female football (eg media roles, fan engagement, sponsorship and commercial partnerships) resulting from the rapid professionalisation of women’s football in England increased anxiety symptoms,” said Perry.
Mental health can also hinge on whether a player is starting games regularly, with the study showing that those invariably included in the starting XI suffered significantly less anxiety and depression than those on the sidelines.
“Future research is needed to explore how players not starting can be better supported,” said Perry. “Footballers who are not regularly starting games may require additional checking from staff to allow for prevention and early identification of mental ill health.”