If a massive global pandemic should have taught us anything, it’s that we’re all vulnerable to mental health conditions. They’re not just the preserve of an unfortunate few.
Yes, I agree it would be nice if we’d figured that out before, but we didn’t notice our governments were incompetent capitalists whose sole interest is maximising their earnings and those of their paymasters. It’s fair to say we’re slow learners.
Hold fire before issuing the honours list though. We might have acknowledged the ubiquity of mental health problems, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to #BeKind to everyone. While marginalised groups, ethnic minorities and keyworkers take the brunt of COVID-19, we’re using our spare time to bicker about entitlement. Is it ok to get the nanny back in because spending quality time with our own kids wasn’t something we factored into having them? Can you be a real feminist if you employ a cleaner? How is it fair that there are so many people on the beach when I’m here? That’s not staying alert, is it?
Middle-class writers, politicians and journalists stick their heads above the parapet for us to shoot at so we denigrate their privilege and lack of self-awareness without caring what the impact to the individual is. When challenged we summon vague concepts about shaming offenders into retraction and enacting meaningful change but we don’t really care whether we wound them. They put themselves out there, they’re insulated by their privilege, so we’re free to lambast them, right? Of course, assuming every group is the image of their worst representative is how we got here in the first place, but things are different in 2020.
It’s like we saw the dystopia Orwell described in 1984, someone said it couldn’t be improved upon, and we responded with the classic ‘hold my beer’.
Football fans are another marginalised group who struggle to elicit sympathy.
Yes, even as a football fan myself I realise that’s a bold statement. But you can’t argue that between the England band, the bald lads who sing ‘Ten German Bombers’ at matches, racism in the stands and idiocy among the players and the monetisation of the Premier League, we’ve created a product that most people can hate quite rationally. That’s before we get into the heroic players who’ve accidentally breached lockdown because they didn’t realise ‘having a sex party’ was included in prohibited behaviours.
Couple that with so much pain and fear among the wider population, it’s entirely unsurprising that football’s suspension isn’t keeping the population awake at night. It’s a game. Who cares whether the season finishes or where the trophies go in the grand scheme of things? Calls to play games behind closed doors to complete the fixture schedule and ‘lift the nation’s mood’ have been met with derision, as clubs threatened with relegation campaign vigorously for an outcome that best suits their circumstances. It’s unseemly at best.
And yet to dismiss it is to dismiss a vital mental health resource for a high risk demographic. According to a recent survey by the Samaritans, men between the ages of 45-49 have the highest rates of suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic. A significant proportion of football fans also fall into this demographic, especially those who attend live games. It’s worth examining the correlation.
Football isn’t traditionally viewed as a vital mental health resource. And yet it provides structure to lives in a way that few other passions do. Many fans are born to it. Their first memories are tied to the thrill of glimpsing that green pitch for the first time from their Dad’s shoulders. The smell of manky burgers, the bus to away games, the roar of the crowd, freezing extremities and losing to a last-minute penalty. It doesn’t sound like fun (and I can assure you most of its hideous) but for many of us, these are formative experiences. We live our lives like this.
The modern age means ubiquity, which translates to us as ‘fully immersive’. It’s possible to spend one’s entire life obsessing about results, transfers, managerial ineptitude and haircuts. Fatuous, yes, but most things are if you view them through the lens of ‘hobby’. If you shift that lens slightly to ‘coping mechanism’, the suspension of football for the foreseeable future has left a significant proportion of people spinning through the ether with nothing to cling on to.
Admittedly it’s hard to feel sympathy with a group of people who we don’t understand, especially when the militant wing make such arses of themselves on a regular basis. But if we look past the headlines to personal experience, what do we see? A demographic whose only experience of sharing emotion is via a football match. Who might not be equipped to discuss anxiety and fear when it’s not about relegation. Those whose only interaction with friends is at the game, or at the pub talking about the game. Remove the rituals that bind us and anarchy will ensue.
Or in the case of some, despair.
We have an opportunity with this pandemic. If sufficiently motivated, we can gain insight into how mental health problems moves among the population. What causes them, how we can manage them and hopefully, how we can help. But we have to be prepared to listen to everyone everywhere, even if they’re rich, white, privileged, narcissistic, racist, phenomenally idiotic or just irritating.
Mental health problems don’t discriminate and neither should we. I’m not optimistic though. As I pointed out before, we are notoriously slow learners.