What Could a Radical Vision of Mental Health Support Look like in Sport?

 

Let’s talk about mental health. Let’s talk about radical vision.

Mental health has become a buzzword in the sports industry. But have leaders in sports caught up with the generational shift?

The strong athlete

 

The redemption arc

 

When athletes experience personal loss and challenges to their mental health and wellness, they are expected to handle it and handle it alone. Unfortunately, the sports media have not been historically kind to athletes who experience mental health challenges. It’s only in the past decade that the conversation on mental wellness has begun to shift. But the silent crisis persists. 

 

The comeback.

 

 

The conversation around mental health has been lagging for years, and what has been seen as progress still leaves many problematic narratives unaddressed. For example, the redemption arc is a trope that sports media love to use to promote the idea of mental toughness. But when they pick apart moments of failure, moments of loss, repackage them and sell these stories back to audiences as something inspiring, it creates an environment where athletes feel they must endure challenges silently until they bounce back. This is where they are given the platform and space to have an open conversation when it should happen in moments where they need their community to rally behind them the most.

 

Sports can bring communities together to connect and support each other. Sports can empower athletes through structure and leadership, confidence, and decision-making skills. Bringing these all together to create a community-based approach to self-care can empower female athletes to feel supported and know they can have open conversations with their family, friends, coach, and fellow athletes. To drop the mindset, they must be strong and instead promote the idea that speaking up is courageous, leaning on your community is brave, and taking control with the help of professionals to find what works for you is the definition of strong.

When it comes to mental health athletes fall into one of two categories – failure or success. Mental health has been a silent crisis in sports for too long. But what if we could step out from behind the spectacle of making athletes larger than life, and instead see the human behind the athlete, the human behind the superhero.

A new study from a team of researchers at the University of Toronto has found that results from a survey conducted with Canadian national team athletes, revealed that “41.4% meet the criteria for one or more mental disorders” (Poucher et al., 2021, p. 8). Other studies, completed on student-athletes in the age cohort of 15-24 are at high risk for mental health disorders. Athletes are at most risk of experiencing mental health disorders, and at higher risk of going unnoticed and untreated. Many are lacking in resources to cope with and manage stressors including increased stress leading to depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and negatively impacting their sports and academic performance (Poucher et al., 2021, p. 2).

Over the last decade, many initiatives had been introduced in the Canadian media to de-stigmatize the silent crisis. 1 in 5 Canadians have experienced mental health disorders and although services and programs are available (CMHA 2021), the stigma of talking openly about their experiences with battling depression, anxiety, and eating disorders amongst many other disorders are still the last barrier to accessing professional help.

 

(Source: Olympics.ca)

From prominent American and Canadian athletes such as Olympian Clara Hughes speaking out, to companies like Bell launching successful mental health initiatives such as Bell’s Let’s Talk Campaign and student-athlete initiative, many have stepped up to promote mental health awareness.

The idea of mental toughness is heavily promoted in the sports community that campaigns are not enough. When news stories link athlete’s ability to overcome personal struggles with mental health as the result of mental toughness, it limits the ways in which we can talk and imagine ways to address the factors that cause mental health disorders. Creating positive environments where athletes feel they are empowered and shown that speaking up and reaching out for help is brave, is a form of radical self-care.

Empowering athletes with Self-Care Sundays, a Blog on all things having to do with Mental Wellness

 

Ringette Ontario is committed to transforming the conversation around mental health and wellness. Last year, we partnered with SeeWhatSheCanDo, to bring the Ringette community Team Talk, a series about fostering community around the love of sport. This video series brought the Ringette community much needed conversations around mental wellness, nutrition, goal setting and more. The series was just the start!

Building A Digital Community-based Mental health Network

Sports can build capacity for empowering girls and women in sports. We have continued our series of wellness conversations with the launch of our new blog series Self Care Sundays, which addresses the gap in mental health and wellness practices that focus on and are centered our female student-athletes. Empowering female athletes to take control of their mental health and wellness, by providing them with a roadmap of strategies, knowledge, and tips to create the self-care routine that address their own needs, is the first step in shifting the stigma against talking about mental health.

There is a deep need to address the challenges and difficulties that young female athletes experience from performance anxiety, to eating disorders, stress-related depression and many other mental health disorders that go unaddressed. The weekly newsletter will provide insights feature insights from mental health advocates on tips and strategies for creating your own self-care routines, health professionals on health and nutrition, exercises, and ways to restructure your daily routine, to address your unique experiences. We want to empower and more importantly give athletes the opportunity to tell their story in their own words.

Each month the blog will address all things to do with mental wellbeing, but will also empower female athletes, who have been underrepresented in the media for so long, to have a voice. From personal essays by former athletes, to interviews with women working in sports, and newcomers to Ringette, readers will indulge in the stories of the human behind the athlete.

Ringette Ontario is a strong supporter of female athletes. Building a digital community through our digital blog and hub, athletes, and their supporters, will be able to learn about approaches, strategies, and tools for having open conversations and creating safe spaces for those struggling to reach out.

The media struggles with letting go of the idea of athletes being strong. But as more sports leaders step up and show that we are both strong and vulnerable, the pressure and expectations have and will continue to shift.

Ringette Ontario is flipping this idea on its head by continuing to build a digital community where our fellow athletes can have a voice and find support in resources provided that help them rethink self-care. Whether self-care means taking a walk, shutting your phone off for the day, exercising, or snuggling up with a good book and tea – it starts with taking care that first step by paying attention to what our body needs and taking care of ourselves.

Other Resources for Mental Health Programs and Services to Create Positive and Safe Sports Environments  

Ringette Ontario and SeeWhatSheCanDo’s Team Talk Series

In 2020, Ringette Ontario partnered with SeeWhatSheCanDo to support the Ringette Community with our series Team Talk. The series brought the community together through conversations that gave insights on mental health, nutrition, and conversations with fellow athletes to talk about having a champion mindset and more

Team Talk Episode 2: Mental Health and Wellness.

Kayla Coombs is a counselor and mental health advocate. She tells in her own words, the experience of dealing with mental health struggles after losing a big part of her identity when she was forced to retire from sport, after sustaining multiple concussions. Watch her discussion on shifting her mindset through self-care.

Coaches Association of Ontario

Safe Sport 101

The CAO partnered with Hydro one to launch a new digital hub called Safe Sport 101 that provides coaches with the tools and resources to create safe space for athletes to reach out for help. The hub provides tools for learning how to create open dialogue, helping athletes in distress, and linking them with resources to help them.

Sources:

Bell Let’s Talk spokespeople

Canadian students making every action count for campus mental health as partners in the 2020 Bell Let’s Talk Day campaign

Fast Facts about Mental Health and Mental Illness – CMHA National

Bell Let’s Talk student-athlete campaign builds momentum with addition of CCAA – Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Athletics

Poucher, Tamminen, K. ., Sabiston, C. ., Cairney, J., & Kerr, G. (2021). Prevalence of symptoms of common mental disorders among elite Canadian athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 57, 102018–. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2021.102018