In sport, we often fail to remember that the elite athletes we enjoy watching so much are human. They use their skills and psychological strength to overcome adversity and achieve their goals – but at what cost?
The world of professional sport is highly competitive, demanding and stressful. The icons of this world are treated largely as strong, powerful and almost indestructible. While it is true that these are people with an immense amount of talent and drive, they are only human, and thus experience the same pains, stresses and issues that all humans do on a global level where they are consistently required to give 100% of their effort.
Mental health in sport, as in many parts of the world, has long been brushed aside as an uncomfortable truth, especially in an environment where people are so successful, and in many ways fortunate. For many years, we have been unable to understand how people with so much success could possibly be experiencing mental illness, and it has only recently come to light the extent to which many of our greatest sports stars have done so.
Victoria Pendleton, Britain’s Olympic cycling champion has admitted to self-harming in the past due to the pressures and doubts experienced in her career. Similarly, Dame Kelly Holmes stated that she self harmed and was diagnosed with depression in 2003 following injuries that threatened her career. There are also cases of sports people who have tragically succumbed to pressures; Gary Speed the former football player and Wales manager committed suicide in 2011, his wife Louise later stated that he had long been battling with mental illness issues.
Which mental health problems are particularly prevalent in sport?
Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders affecting people worldwide. In the UK alone 2.6% of the population suffer from depression, and in the world of sport this is no different. The age bracket with the highest number of sufferers is between 45-64; at this time in their lives, professional athletes are (in most cases) long past their peak, and have had to consider different career or life options. This immense shift in focus brings a lot of stresses with it, it can be extremely disheartening for someone who has trained and worked so hard to suddenly not be able to do what they love most, and, for many athletes depression can stem from this period (some have speculated this was one of the issues Gary Speed faced).
Furthermore, depression can come from the loneliness many professional athletes experience. For long periods of the year they are required to be away from their loved ones’, as well as suffering from excessive media attention and being put on a pedestal as a celebrity. Statistics have shown that some stability is important in bringing calm to peoples’ lives and the constant ups and downs of being a professional sportsperson can definitely take its’ toll.
Other mental health issues suffered by athletes can stem from physical traumas experienced. In 2011 and 2012, the high-profile suicides of two former NFL players, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson, both of whom had experienced issues with their brains, brought ‘chronic traumatic encephalopathy’ or CTE to the forefront of the mental health in sports discussion. CTE is a degenerative brain disease often suffered by those with a history of repeated brain trauma; it can cause serious issues with speech, judgment and memory loss. Studies are ongoing to discover the extent to which this is caused by sports related injuries, however it has become clear that this is a serious problem, which needs to be addressed. Muhammad Ali, one of the most famous sports icons ever, suffers greatly from Parkinson’s disease, and while, for most people, the causes of Parkinson’s remain unclear, many doctors and other mental health experts have expressed their concern that Ali’s many head traumas in his career may have contributed to his Parkinson’s.
What is being done and what more can be done to help?
An increased awareness of mental illness in sports means things are looking up, however we still have a long way to go. Across many sports, there has been an increase in help available for players. In cricket, the PCA (Professional Cricketers’ Association) has set up a helpline available to players who are having mental health issues. In Rugby league and union, SoM (State of Mind) has been set up to broaden awareness of the issue, and help increase conversations about mental health. SoM runs workshops with players and those working in rugby to educate and inform them on identifying and dealing with mental health issues. As well as this, the Liberal Democrats have brought in The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation, which works with a number of sports bodies to increase awareness of mental illness in sports.
Fortunately, we live in a time where there is an ever-growing movement towards understanding and becoming more accepting of mental illness. The key to making progress is to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness as ‘lesser’ to more obvious diseases, and also to accept that these are issues that affect huge numbers of people, even those who, like professional athletes, may seem to have it all. As a nation with so much affection for our sportsmen and women, we need to make sure that we increase awareness of mental illness and ways of dealing with it in sport, not only to help athletes or ex athletes who are suffering, but also to use this attention to bring the mental health discussion on the whole to a wide audience.