It’s ok to not be ok: How teams & organizations can support athlete mental health

The opportunity we have to make a positive contribution to mental health within our teams and organizations cannot be overlooked. Our success as coaches, leaders, and teammates should extend far beyond winning records, personal bests, and playoff runs. It should be measured by the support provided to, and well-being of, those to our locker room(s).

In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadian residents will suffer from a mental illness. 34% of high school students in Ontario reported a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress - a symptom of anxiety and depression. Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians aged 15-24.

And lets not kid ourselves that an incredibly successful athletic career grants immunity from these challenges. Michael Phelps has opened up about his depression, Kelly Holmes about her self-harm, and Frank Bruno on his bipolar disorder, to highlight just a fraction of the publicly shared stories.

Support for mental health and well-being is becoming more prevalent and accessible in the elite sport domain. During 2018, UK Sport appointed Dr. James Bell as the Head of Mental Health, the Carolina Panthers hired Tish Guerin as the NFL’s first in-house Mental Health Therapist, and here in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport was established.

In September 2018, a select Think Tank of sport psychology experts from Australia, Europe, and North America met in Denmark to discuss the current and future challenges facing mental health in sport. Five of their statements are presented below, with practical recommendations which any team or organization can begin implementing.

First, is that mentally healthy athletes and teams are able to compete at their fullest potential. This is the concept that mental health is a key component of a culture of success. Mental health support should be just as prioritized in a team’s pursuit of excellence as conditioning programs, or performance analysis.  

Recommendation: Mental health support and awareness should be integrated into existing practice schedules. By dedicating periods of time each week, or a number of sessions each season, to awareness, education, and experience sharing, teams can take a proactive step to increasing the support they provide, and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Next, they detailed that mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. This means that mentally healthy individuals who are exposed to the stresses of performance can experience symptoms associated with mental illness on a daily basis; and so those athletes who would not clinically diagnose as having a mental illness still require support in managing their mental health needs. Further, behavior is contextual, and traits which may be viewed positively within sport (ie. perfectionism) can be detrimental to an athlete's life outside of their craft. And vise-versa. Finally, although mental health and performance are clearly related, the exact relationship is not yet understood. Athletes who suffer from mental illnesses can achieve world-class performances, and the complexity of this area should be acknowledged.  

Recommendation: Given the varied and complex nature of athlete’s lifestyles, teams and organizations should work with them to develop support from those they have most contact with. Teammates, friends, family, and partners. By helping the athlete gain comfort in these support systems, we increase opportunities for them to reach out during challenging moments.

Injuries, tryouts, transfers, and even funding challenges . Sport is full of instability. Mentally healthy athletes are better prepared to deal with the unpredictability of life during, and following, their athletic pursuits. Transitions, even when following success, can often be a risky time in an athlete’s life. It’s important that those around are present, vigilant, and supportive whenever possible.

Recommendation: Teams and organizations should be proactive about effective skill development in the areas such as stress management, resilience, and self-care. Given that we never truly know when an athlete’s career may end, preparing them for life outside of sport through providing mental skills training, career education, and positive role models ensures that we are setting them up for success, whatever the next step.

Fourth, the environment sport creates is, by nature, full of mental health hazards. That said, it doesn’t necessarily cause mental health problems in all cases. Infact, it’s conceivable teams and organizations can foster environments which nourish mental health. The lessons and companionship found within sport can be transformed into boundlessly valuable experiences.

Recommendation: By casting awareness to the environment which they create, teams and organizations can preempt challenges to athletes mental health. Further, they can look to be intentional in creating an environment which not only supports athletes, but allows their mental health to grow and flourish. The creation of these positive environments should be a source of pride for all successful teams and organizations.

Finally, mental health support should be everyone’s business, but have clear responsibilities. Although it is important that mental health is understood by all, as this allows many watchful eyes and understanding ears, the clear delegation of support and referral reduces the opportunity for miscommunication.

Recommendation: All personnel within a team or organization should receive education and awareness surrounding mental health support and ongoing vigilance surrounding mental illness. Additionally, the designation of roles such as “Mental Health Officer” or similar allows targeted professional development to the responsible individuals. They should be provided with the resources and referral pathways to best support the mental health of athletes with presenting symptoms or concerns.  

A 2016 survey suggested that 40% of Canadians have experienced feelings of anxiety or depression but did not seek out help for it. Death by suicide is the third leading cause of death for NCAA college athletes. Working in the sporting domain, we’re uniquely positioned to make a positive contribution to the mental health within our teams and organizations. I encourage all readers to reflect what can be done today, no matter how small, to better support their athletes well-being going forwards.

For Canadians seeking the support of a Registered/ Certified Clinical Counsellor, Mzk Performance refers out to sport minded practitioners within our network. To find out more, please get in contact. Thanks for reading!