With Men’s Health Week finishing up last Sunday, the majority of conversation focused on access to men’s health services, both physical and psychological. The figures indicate males traditionally do not rush to seek help, though with mental illness affecting up to one in three elite athletes every year, what discernible differences are there in this specific group in regard to help-seeking?

The British Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a review of 52 studies comprising of 13,000 athletes across 71 different sports and found that stigma is the number one reason why mentally unwell athletes don’t seek help. Athletes fear that mental illness will be seen as a weakness, concerned they will not be selected for teams and new contracts, as well as anxious about the lack of understanding among coaching and team staff. This is consistent with the rest of the population, where most won’t seek help due to the stigma of mental health and the perception of being ‘weak’.

A key factor for athletes is the competitive conditions they are in. Men’s sporting environments, particularly team sports, attract personality types that are often competitive and driven to succeed. These personalities, alongside athletes believing that coaches have low mental health literacy, breed an environment where opening up about their struggles leaves them vulnerable.

My experience as a Sport Psychologist facilitating a Mental Conditioning Program for elite athletes provides some insight into what may be happening for male athletes in particular. In this Program we discuss the concept of the human mind and body being wired for survival. While the survival, or fight and flight, response is extremely useful when faced with immediate physical danger, like a lion attack, it is less useful when it is activated by more everyday occurrences like being cut off in traffic. One key everyday danger that athletes respond to is team selection. The AFL athletes I worked with highlighted that only 22 players are selected each week from a list of 45. Every week, they were indeed in survival-mode, and part of that survival defence mechanism is to look strong, not exhibit weakness, including hiding any mental health issues for fear it will impact their role in the team.

Elite sport culture places heavy training demands and a constant drive to improve performance, which only serve to heighten the risk of speaking out. And whilst there is not always a direct relationship between mental health and performance, they often overlap. This fight for perfectionism, gaining feedback on how to improve and feelings of not being good enough, affects esteem and therefore mental health. When performances begin to deteriorate, it can accentuate the mental health struggles further, thus beginning a vicious cycle.

Encouragingly, there are emerging examples of athletes and clubs challenging the stigma around mental health. Athletes are perhaps slowly becoming more comfortable asking for time out in order to focus on mental health, releasing pressure before re-entering their sport. An inspiring example of this attitude shift happened in 2015 when Sydney Swans player Buddy Franklin publicly acknowledged his mental health issues before taking a break from football. Throughout the process he was actively supported by his Club and peers and made a successful return to the game.

Another key factor for athletes is that the age at which sporting demands increase is also when mental illness symptoms are most likely to emerge, between 15-25 years. For this age group the number one cause of all illness is mental illness. In many sports, this is the time when athletes progress to high level or elite competition but often aren’t making the final team or reaching the heights they imagined. It is easy for disappointment, self-doubt or anxiety to set in and challenge the young athletes sporting identity and resilience.

Men’s Health Week allows us to take the opportunity to reflect on ways to improve men’s health, including mental health literacy among sporting coaches and staff. It’s a helpful reminder to acknowledge that athletes are human and can feel vulnerable at times, so reducing stigma and normalising mental health concerns, can hopefully lead to better conversations and outcomes. One men’s mental health and sport campaign tackling this issue is Better Out Than In, led by beyondblue, Movember and AFL Players.

If you are involved in sport you may want to ask your club for their mental health and wellbeing policy. It is likely that they know what to do when faced with physical health issues (first aid kit, concussion policy, trained first aiders, referral pathways) but do they have the equivalent plan in place for mental health? If not, this is an opportunity to be a catalyst for change. If you need support putting your wellbeing policy and processes in place, get in touch and we can help get you started.

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