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Ghana's female footballers open up on mental health

Emmanuel Ayamga
June 20, 2023

Mental health remains a big issue in Ghana. But some Ghanaian female footballers are shattering the stigma of silence as they look to change the narrative around the issue.

Ghana fans at the World Cup
Ghana's uphill battle with treating mental health issues is mirrored in the world of women's footballImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

Dorcas Kafui Fumey woke up one day and wanted to quit football. It wasn't because of a career-ending injury, or even a terminal illness. She was simply tired of everything around her and just didn’t feel like going on any longer.

The Ghanaian footballer, who's fondly called Faraday due to her fixation with the sciences, had bottled up so much up to that point and was on the verge of imploding. The loneliness and social isolation resulting from the COVID-enforced lockdown exacerbated how she was feeling. Physically, she was fine. Mentally and emotionally, however, she was far from OK.

"How I was feeling pushed me into a second stage that I was rendered powerless, hopeless," Faraday told DW. "So, as much as I wanted to play, I couldn't. I tried a couple of times to start training again, but then it didn't really happen."

This was Faraday's first encounter with a mental health issue. She felt taking a sabbatical would do her some good, only that it didn't: she couldn't handle watching her friends chase their dreams on match days while she sat at home.

"I was feeling more depressed because I felt like I saw people doing what I love doing and I couldn't participate," she said. 

So when the COVID-19 lockdown was finally lifted, Faraday returned to personal training and would later join Ghana Women's Premier League side Police Ladies in October 2021. 

The months away from football took a toll, though. She had gained weight and her teammates didn’t provide a supporting shoulder. "I wasn't all that OK, I had grown very big too," Faraday recalled. "My teammates were laughing at me. My coaches, too, weren't fielding me. They said I couldn't compete."

Athletes are human

In the world of football, while the physical well-being of footballers is usually a matter of urgency, the level of concern for their other metaphysical needs is the direct opposite.

The modern player isn't just expected to constantly perform at peak levels, but they're also subjected to abuse when things don't go well. It's worse for female footballers from Ghana, most of whom are victims of online trolling over their physical appearance.

As human and vulnerable as these players are, stomaching all these challenges is far from easy. Dr. Patrick Ofori, who previously worked as the psychologist for Ghana's male national team, believes the pressure from competing at the highest level takes a toll on athletes. Without the needed psychological support, he said, they could lose themselves.

"The athlete is also a normal human being," Ofori told DW. "And as psychologists, we normally push for the holistic development of these athletes to be developed as a human entity and not as an entertainment object.

"You may think that these athletes are tough, they are able to play in front of thousands of people and that they should be able to deal with any other slightest thing. Beneath the so-called confident athlete is fear, and they go through a lot to put up those performances," he said.

"That explains why others would want to adopt varied means of coping mechanisms to navigate the challenges that they have as a result of not having that required psychological support."

Mental health professionals lacking in Ghana

The World Health Organization estimates that 2.3 million people have mental health conditions in Ghana. However, the country doesn't have enough qualified mental health professionals, with just 39 psychiatrists available to serve the entire population.

Even more, damning is that only 2% of the people living with these conditions receive treatment. This is mirrored in football, where few clubs even have a psychologist on standby to help players navigate their emotional and psychological struggles.

"To even know that somebody cares or somebody is willing to listen also brings peace of mind," said Doris Dzreke, former La Ladies and Ridge City Women defender, whose family never welcomed the idea of a girl playing football. "It does [affect performance] because you don't know where to go sleep after putting your 100% in the game. Personally, it drains me."

Halifax Ladies center-back Delphine Sosu also revealed that she resorted to "listening to music, praying and having personal meditation" to overcome her mental health challenges due to not having the advantage of professional help.

Faraday, Dzreke and Sosu are, however, part of a small group trying to shatter the stigma of silence when it comes to mental health awareness in the women's game. All three players have been brave enough to open up about their challenges, and are now part of a campaign to get more female athletes to follow suit.

'More footballers in Ghana are beginning to seek help'

The Police Ladies is one of few clubs with a mental health department, and Faraday has made use of the team's psychologist. Telling stories became a coping mechanism, and she's now in the process of releasing her debut studio EP, which focuses on heroic stories of other female footballers.

"More footballers in Ghana are beginning to seek help," said Faraday. "Now there are certain reforms put in place. My team, for instance, they've been very helpful with my process."

Sosu also said after opening up about her mental health, she realized "there were changes in my game, I was regaining my soul." Dzreke added that she's "hoping there'll be more of them [psychologists]" in the women's game to help the players.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ofori believes reforms that make it compulsory for clubs to have psychologists will go a long way to help. The sports psychologist also wants to see a dual-athlete career pathway instituted to cater to those who fall off along the way.

"Knowing that support is available is also critical and also empowering the athletes that accessing support does not necessarily mean you are weak," Ofori said. "Like we have medical doctors attached to teams, there should be a pool of psychologists available to support these athletes."

Edited by: James Thorogood