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December 13, 2018

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depression, anxiety, self-harm

Mental health in sport: Winning the off-pitch battles

For many sportsmen and women, the greatest achievement they can aspire to is an Olympic medal or a world championship. But now many are publicly talking about their battles and victories off the field, particularly around mental health in sport.

In the past year, several high-profile sportsmen and women have spoken about their own struggles with anxiety, depression and self-harm. In this special feature, we look at some of the UK’s biggest sports stars who have openly spoken about struggles with mental health. We also consider the impact they are having and discuss some of the initiatives to help those who are suffering.

Collage representing mental health in sport

Tyson Fury on mental health

The British professional boxer Tyson Fury has become a champion for mental health and has openly talked about the subject in the run-up to his recent match with Deontay Wilder, which ended in a draw. In an emotional post-fight address, he assured sufferers “if I can come back from where I’ve come from then you can do it too”. Last year he also posted self-shot video message, encouraging others who struggle with depression to stay strong, telling them they’re not alone.

Danny Rose on depression

And in June this year, Tottenham and England defender Danny Rose revealed he had depression which he believes was triggered by the treatment of a knee injury coupled with family tragedy, just days before he flew out with teammates to the World Cup.

Jonny Wilkinson on anxiety, panic attacks and depression

Rugby legend Jonny Wikinson has spoken out about his struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and depression at the height of his career.

“As this perfectionist rugby player who couldn’t bear to lose, I had this idea that who you are starts when you’re born and ends when you die, and if anything bad happens then it stains that identity forever,” he told Shortlist in June.

“But there was a world out there, outside of the identity I had created, that I was constantly trying to get to but was held back by the man I had become.”

Dame Kelly Holmes on self-harm and depression

Speaking at Safety & Health Expo 2017, Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes talked about her own experiences with mental health.

Behind glory is a human being. Behind success is a human being. Every single one of us is a human being. One minute I was at the top and then back to my bag room.

“At the point when I was number one in the world – I had a niggle on the first race of the first day and towards the end of the race my calf went pop,” said Dame Kelly.

“It was a complete rupture of the calf and I was told my career was over. I had to fight so hard to get back. I knew I had to get physically fit and mentally strong.”

Read the full write-up of Dame Kelly’s mental health keynote talk here. And in the TV interview below hear Dame Kelly open up about self-harm and the lonely ‘dark hole’ she found herself in.

Why sports stars make a difference

Speaking to SHP Online, Mind’s Head of Physical Activity, Hayley Jarvis says many people from the world of sport have already made a difference by speaking out. Research by the mental health charity has also found that over a quarter (28 per cent) of people who know someone with a mental health problem said they had started a conversation with a loved one about their mental health as a direct result of reading or hearing about a celebrity’s experiences.

A quarter (25 per cent) also said hearing a celebrity talk openly about their own mental health had directly inspired them to seek help for themselves and half (52 per cent) said it has helped them to feel like they weren’t alone.

“One in four people in the UK will be affected by a mental health problem in any year so it should come as no surprise that professional sportspeople will face these issues too,” says Ms Jarvis.

Challenges with mental health in sport

“Sportspeople experience a unique set of mental health pressures in their jobs, from achieving set targets of scoring goals and winning trophies, to facing media scrutiny, physical injury and meeting the high expectations of fans,” she adds.

“Findings from Mind’s Performance Matters report on the mental health of elite athletes found that sportspeople who have revealed their own battles with mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and self-harm, have encouraged others to go public with their own experiences; however, the number who struggle in silence is unknown.

“A key concern for sportspeople who are still playing and competing is the impact that revealing or asking for support for a mental health problem can have on their careers showing there is clearly still a stigma attached to mental health,” says Ms Jarvis.

She adds there is a ‘clear desire’ within the sport sector to improve the mental health support available for sports professionals.

Activities to tackle mental health in sport

“Mind is working closely with key organisations, whether through our charity partnership with the English Football League and broader work with Sport England among many others, to embed long-term change in how the sector helps people when they are experiencing mental health problems.

“Mind was also involved in setting up the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation to encourage organisations across the sport sector to share best practice and create action plans to tackle mental health. So far there are over 330 signatories to the Charter, showing that we are making real progress.

“We have already seen some organisations leading the way in providing support. The Professional Cricketers Association provide a confidential helpline, online resources, and run awareness-raising sessions for first team and academy players.

“The Professional Footballers Association also provide a 24-hour helpline and access to counselling through the charity Sporting Chance, alongside education sessions with players. We want to see these efforts mirrored across the sector, particularly among organisations which directly employ sports professionals and who have a duty to protect and support their staff regardless of whether they are on the pitch or in an office.”

‘Still a taboo’

Leeds Rhinos Forward and the Founder of Mantality magazine, Stevie Ward, says he believes the issue is still taboo for many involved in sport.

Within sport, there’s always the drive to improve and athletes can often feel stressed about an injury that stops them performing – which is very specific to the job role and environment, however they may feel a taboo around mental ill health,” he tells SHP Online.

“Mental health has been talked about a lot more over the past few years and people are becoming more aware of mental ill health but there is still room for sports people to evolve mentally as well as physically to put measures in place to ensure good mental health within the industry. I think this will happen over the coming years as performance environments are changing and becoming increasingly more conscious about the importance of mental health to improve you as an athlete.”

Raising awareness

Mr Ward adds that high-profile sportspeople speaking out about mental health has helped many people, not just within sport, but “across all walks of life”.

“The understanding around mental health, why it can occur and what types of people are more likely to experience it has increased.

For instance, there is a lot of people that are perfectionists within the sport industry, and perfection is not a real thing so the consistent strive for perfection may cross into suffering at times,” he says.


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