The facts are startling. A quarter of people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Around the world, mental health in sport is an issue that has been swept under the carpet.
Although there are signs of improvement in the UK, the progress has been slow, and those involved with MIND believe that the support for ath- letes is nowhere near adequate. Ambassador Clarke Carlisle travelled to Germany after footballer Robert Enke’s suicide in 2009 and was impressed by the measures that they had taken. Every professional club has access to psychiatric treatment and there’s a 24-hour hotline for players.
In the UK, it was only in 2012 that the PFA Player Welfare Department was created, but its impact has already been telling. In 2014, 143 clients engaged with the service, of which 38 per cent were current players. Currently, however, we are only reacting to our own tragedies, rather than anticipating issues and emulating the work of other countries, such as Germany.
“MENTAL HEALTH HAS A STIGMA THAT IS TIED INTO WEAKNESS…THE ANTITHESIS OF WHAT ATHLETES WANT
DR. THELMA DYE HOLMES
The tragic death of Gary Speed sparked a huge reaction in the sporting world. Five footballers stepped forward and specifically requested help as a result, whilst earlier this year Nick Clegg proposed a charter committing to removing the stigma and prejudice around mental health from the pitch to the playground.
Further afield, star American footballer Brandon Marshall is an ambassador for advocating mental health issues. Having publicised his illness in 2011, he highlights the difficulty for people accepting that they have an issue: “In sports there’s a lot of people out there suffering and they don’t even know it. That’s because they can’t identify with mental illness.”
This is a universal issue. When elite athletes experience physical injury, they have a team of medical professionals ready to analyse and help ensure a swift recovery. The same help is not as readily available for mental issues. Because the symptoms are much harder to identify, mental health illnesses in sport and other walks of life are ften overlooked. Gary Speed’s sister talked about her regret at not asking her brother if he was okay: “He hid it from us, because people who are suffering from depression are not only fighting the illness but they are fighting the stigma that goes with it.
Until now, there have been a number of large misconceptions about athletes and mental health. Many assume that mental health issues in athletes are rare, as they are often perceived to be extremely physically healthy individuals. Top elite athletes are commonly idealised by the media, often subjected to a large fan base, and portrayed as having fantastic lives.
This media influence has, in many cases, led to the perception that athletes are immune to such problems. Recently ex-footballers Matthew Etherington and Michael Chopra opened up about their struggles with gambling – another problem to which athletes are susceptible.
The idea that seeking help for mental health problems makes the athlete appear ‘weak’ needs to be addressed from both a general media perspective and from the perspective of the athlete themselves. It is an issue which needs incredible bravery to be resolved, and if both sides co-operate, we will hopefully be able to move towards a resolution.
Visit www.mind.org.uk or www. sportinmind.org for more information