A Spotlight On Mental Health – Will Athletics Finally Take Mental Health Seriously?

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The Athletes Advocating For Mental Health In Sports 

Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam tennis singles champion, is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles and the current reigning champion in both the US Open and Australian Open but in spite of her success in the past she has been discussed more recently for the stance she took on protecting her mental health in the recent French Opens, in which she refused to speak to the media in order to protect her mental health – a move which later prompted her to withdraw from the tournament entirely under the threat of a potential ban from future tournaments for her refusal. 

Her decision sparked a wider discussion in the sports world about mental health, as Osaka’s spoke out about her reasoning behind the move: 

“I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”      She wrote on Twitter,    “Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”

More recently, before beginning to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, Osaka wrote an essay for Time, further emphasising the importance of discussion about mental health, especially with regards to athletes: 

In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms—frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones. I also do not want to have to engage in a scrutiny of my personal medical history ever again.” 

Osaka is not alone in speaking out about her mental health now, however. 

Raven Saunders is currently competing for the USA in the Tokyo Olympics, and has also spoken out about her struggles with mental health in the sporting world, telling NBC News that in 2018 following a series of post-Olympics setbacks she entered a period of depression and suicide ideation. 

“I would base my self-worth and how good I was as a person on how I was doing in track,” she said. “When I ended up not having a good World Championship meet, it sent me further into that hole.

The good news is that because of these courageous athletes speaking out, there has been more attention drawn to the lack of emotional support for these athletes, and even more are stepping forward to discuss their stories. 

“Athletes are increasingly taking ownership of their personal narrative and making their own choices about sharing that personal narrative,” LeʼRoy Reese, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural science at the Morehouse School of Medicine, told NBC. “There is now a sense of agency among professional athletes that we have not seen before with regard to their voices.”

In 2019, team USA added an “athlete services division” to bolster support for their athletes which included mental health resources, such as helplines, counselling groups and also therapists. 

The more people that talk about this within the industry, the less stigma will be attached to the important topic of mental health and we will all begin to see more spaces opening up for professional athletes to discuss their challenges, and also more spaces for mental health professionals to be able to help those in need of it.

Tennis, Sports, Ball, Racket, Sport, Determination

Athletes have been using the spotlight that the Olympics has granted them to raise awareness about mental health within the world of athletics and beyond. For too long now, mental health has been stigmatised and not taken seriously when it comes to athletes wellbeing and this movement might be the one to change it all, making it all the more important to start discussions about performance, pressure, and self-worth in your practices. 

In sports there is no question that an athlete’s physical health is monitored and kept in near-perfect condition to ensure good performance in whichever sport they play, but what about emotional wellbeing and the state of their mental health? 

In a study published by The British Journal Of Sports Medicine, it has been understood that the prevalence of mental health symptoms and disorders in current and former athletes may be slightly higher than in the general population, with 34% of the population studied suffering symptoms of anxiety or depression in current athletes. 

Research conducted by Mind UK has highlighted the main struggles of athletes suffering with poor mental health, and most of it has to do with failure to perform or to achieve the results that are expected of them in their chosen sports. In addition to this, there is a stigma within the athletic community about mental health which creates a hostile environment for those looking to speak out about their struggles. 

Athletes who are still playing and competing have expressed concern about the impact revealing or asking for support for a mental health problem can have on their career showing there is clearly still a stigma attached to mental health.” 

There is more to do to proactively support professional sportspeople at key transition points such as entering professional sport and signing their first contract, long term injury and retirement. Confidentiality and independence are highly important in provision of mental health support to athletes as an underlying concern about the impact on their career may prevent people from seeking help.

An article published by Springer Open in November of 2019 that the current type of support provided to elite athletes is centred towards building mental health literacy or awareness of the signs of poor mental health, but proposes that resources could be better spent on helping athletes recognise that their mental health is as important as their physical health. Their suggested framework aims to:

  • Help athletes develop a range of self-management skills that they can use to manage psychological distress
  • Equip key stakeholders in the elite sporting environment (i.e. Coaches, sports medicine and high-performance support staff) to better recognise the importance of mental health 
  • Highlight the need for specialist multi-disciplinary teams of mental health professionals.

 Start a conversation today and join the discussion on our LinkedIn, and join Private Practice Hub today to be kept up to date with mental health news and the best ways to keep your practice growing. Article written by Maisie Violet Wicks, BA Hons. If you have anything to add or want your voice heard, email newsdesk@privatepracticehub.co.uk to get in contact!