While media watching recently I couldn’t help but notice the number of high profile past and present Australian athletes publicly sharing their battles with mental health issues. From the perspective of a psychologist working in the sports industry, this is certainly not news to me. But it has me wondering, is the concept of elite level athletes being vulnerable to mental health difficulties news to the general public? At this point I really tuned in to hear the responses of the wider community and what followed was a barrage of statements indicating that most believe elite athletes are immune to mental health difficulties.
Dispelling the myths – Athletes are humans too!
Traditional support structures for elite athletes are based around managing physical injury. So when an athlete experiences physical injury, a team of medical professionals, exercise physiologists, and physiotherapists swoop in and work together to ensure a speedy return to training and competition. However, there is a vastly different process for treatment of an athlete who suffers from mental illness or even just general life stressors. This is because many elite sporting programs still do not engage the services of sport psychologists. Driving the lack of support for psychological services in elite sporting programs is the underlying assumption that athletes are not affected by mental health conditions. Perhaps this is because many perceive them to be physically healthy individuals? Without this support network athletes often do not seek help from mental health services or fail to fully participate once they have begun. In addition to this, athletes are often geographically estranged from family and usual support networks as they move away to pursue their career as an elite athlete and their career frequently requires both domestic and international travel.
The facts about mental health in sport
It is well accepted that physical activity has a positive impact on mental health and well-being, and can play an integral role in the treatment of many mental health issues. However, this does not mean that athletes are immune to mental illnesses. In fact, athletes competing at higher levels face unique stressors which may increase the risk for developing mental health problems. The fact is that athletes face an enormous amount of stress and pressure from frequent competition that predisposes some to developing feelings of depression or anxiety. Beyond this, there are a myriad of challenges an athlete must negotiate such as:
– physical injuries;
– performance issues;
– relationship breakdowns with coaches and teammates;
– the rigors of training and associated frequent physical exhaustion; and
– aging and of course the challenge of retiring with identity and purpose.
In addition, recent research indicates that collision sports where an athlete experiences head trauma, even to a mild degree regularly, increases an athletes chances of developing depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
A major issue in athletes and non-athletes alike is not seeking help for mental health problems. Common reasons for this include stigma around mental health problems, a lack of knowledge and understanding about mental health, help-seeking being perceived as a sign of weakness, and mental health not being linked to performance. The perception that seeking help for mental health problems indicates ‘weakness’ in an athlete needs to be addressed from both a general media perspective and from the perspective of the athlete themselves.
The take home messages
When an athlete and those close to them fail to identify and/or acknowledge early signs of physiological distress they may progress to more pervasive mental health conditions which effect performance, and as we have recently seen in the media, can go on to unravel life after sport. We must view athletes as humans and vulnerable to both physical and psychological damage. We must continue to challenge traditional support structures to include personnel who can monitor psychological stress and mental wellbeing of athletes and who can respond in a timely manner.
Early identification and intervention for mental health problems is extremely important, as this can mean less disruption to an athlete’s life and quicker recovery. Good mental health in athletes provides a foundation for consistent and optimal training and performance.
Book an appointment with one of our sport psychologists to be proactive with mental health in sport.