WHAT happens when the charity people turn to when they reach breaking point, reaches breaking point itself? It is a question that has weighed on the mind of Libby Emmerson, founder of mental health charity Back Onside, in recent days.

The organisation has been a salvation for people from all walks of life since it was set up two years ago, but it has proven to be especially helpful to footballers who feel they have nowhere else to turn in times of crisis. This last week has drawn the need for their services sharply into focus, with no less than four sportspeople brought back from the brink of suicide by their intervention.

A sizeable donation by Liverpool left-back and Scotland captain Andy Robertson on Thursday has brought some respite to the charity, and some welcome publicity too, but with football now shut down indefinitely due to the coronavirus epidemic, Emmerson knows that the toughest times lie ahead.

As CEO of Back Onside, her personal mobile phone has been the charity’s 24-hour-a-day crisis line, a burden she is ready and willing to bear for as long as those in need require her to do so. With the long fallow period now stretching out ahead of players though - and with it the subsequent uncertainty over finances and contracts - that burden will only increase, while at the same time, the fundraising efforts for the charity are all but shut down along with the rest of the country.

Their services, no matter the hardships, will endure. Those behind that work don’t often shout about it from the rooftops, but the time has come for Back Onside itself to reach out for help.

“We’re definitely going to come under even more strain during this period,” Emmerson said. “I didn’t get to sleep until half five on Friday morning, we had 22 people call or message me. They weren’t all in crisis, but it’s people wanting to talk that are worried.

“There are a lot of new people who want to ask questions and get advice, and that is only going to increase.

“From Monday to Thursday this week, we saved four people from committing suicide. Two were on Monday, one on Wednesday, and one on Thursday. I’m talking about being out on Monday morning, in the woods, looking for a footballer. Then, another sportsperson was at a train line, another was about to take an overdose.

“People will say that they have the Samaritans and we shouldn’t be doing that, but my phone is a 24-hour crisis line. We don’t promote that, because it’s busy enough as it is, and I know I have to look after my mental health as well.

“Hopefully, further down the line if we can keep going, we can reach the stage where we have professionals in manning a separate line 24 hours a day, whereas now it is my phone that is manned 24 hours a day.

“In the two years or so since we started up, we’ve worked with 80 SPFL players. That’s frightening. Then we’ve got our junior clubs, our amateur clubs, and then normal individuals and kids on top of that. We’re actually losing count of the number of people we’ve supported or are supporting because it’s so busy.”

The regimented lifestyle of footballers is such that they can be lost when that structure is no longer in place, while the cocktail of disposable income and free time that they often enjoy has long been one that can encourage destructive behaviours. The increased boredom of the weeks to come then poses a huge risk to their mental wellbeing.

“That routine they are used to is now gone,” said Emmerson.

“So, let’s say they are dealing with mental health issues anyway, and that might be nothing related to football, it’s mostly personal. But football was the place they went to escape. Their routine has suddenly been removed and they also have the uncertainty around what is going to happen.

“I know it’s the same for everybody but when you are in such a regimented routine, and that gets taken away and you’ve still got the issues you were trying to deal with in the first place, it just heightens it even more.

“We rely completely on donations and our events, and as of now, all of our events have had to be cancelled.

“This is where the crisis point has come in for us. We had the Kiltwalk, for instance, we had 22 people doing that and it has been postponed. Our ball on May 2nd has had to be cancelled, and we don’t know if our golf day in August is going to go ahead. Nobody can even commit to things.

“We are working on a professional one-to-one basis with about 40 clients a week on average, so we’re at the stage where they are panicking.

“Just now, we’ve got all these people currently getting treatment, and we are going to have to stop that. That is going to have an even more devastating impact on their mental health than not getting it at all.

“I always wanted the charity to be about no matter how much money you had or how little you had, the one thing you didn’t have to worry about was how to pay for support for your mental health.”

That is why the donation from Robertson was as timely as it was welcome. But the ongoing and increasing demand for the charity’s services means that it is simply a band-aid being applied to an axe-wound.

“Nobody has ever done that for us in terms of a player,” Emmerson explained. “I wanted to keep it private if that’s he wanted, but he said that if we wanted to use his name and if that would save lives, then he was all for it.

“What shouldn’t be forgotten though is that we’ve had a lot of people who have pretty much nothing making donations, and that is no less important.

“So, yes, Andy has made an amazing donation, and we have actually had another from George Rowe who played for Arbroath, Queen of the South, Clydebank and Stirling Albion which was great too.

“I hope those examples encourage other individuals or businesses to come forward and help out.

“As much as these big donations really help, on average just now we are putting out around £1000 a week just on counselling. And that’s not including things like fuel or train tickets to get to counselling or food if that’s what people need.

“The point is that his donation is massive to us, but it will only support us for a matter of weeks with the amount of people we are now supporting.

“Our biggest challenges lie ahead.”