Talking about mental health in sport shouldn’t sideline athletes

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, 8-14th May, and as recently as last week sports people’s struggles with mental health have once again been highlighted with the sad news about Aaron Lennon.

It was reported that he was detained under the Mental Health Act over concerns for his welfare. Thankfully a statement from his club, Everton, said he is now receiving the support and treatment he needs for a stress related illness.

People usually look at high profile athletes and think – how can they be suffering from mental health issues? They have it all – money, awards, fame and getting to do what they love day in day out as their job.

1 in 4 people are affected by mental illness every year

But Mental Health doesn’t discriminate between the sexes, religion, race, background or your job. On average 1 in 4 people are affected by mental illness every year so why should athletes be any different?

If anything the pressure of competition, fans expectation and the media scrutiny could mean that the statistics are higher amongst elite sports men and women.

There have been many high profile news stories about and from athletes within football, boxing, cricket and athletics where they have spoken out about their experiences.

And top level hockey players are no different, they face the same challenges as the ones described by Dame Kelly Holmes, Clarke Carlisle, Frank Bruno and Marcus Trescothick but on top of that due to lack of funding and sponsorship could also have the added pressure of holding down a job.

One hockey player who struggled to cope with the scrutiny and pressure is former Hockeyroo Anna Flanagan, who ended up going to Rio as only a reserve after being charged for drink driving and breaching team protocols.

Anna Flanagan: It was pretty obvious to me and everyone around me that I was struggling mentally

The former junior player of the year had to take a complete break from the game when she realised ‘it was pretty obvious to me and everyone around me that I was struggling mentally.’

Thankfully Anna got the time and support she needed to recover and is now setting her sights on getting back into the Australia squad.

Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE, is another top player who has spoken out and was on BBC Radio 4 this week discussing the importance of talking about your mental health and opening up on the subject.

She spoke about how she has seen from within the squads, she has been involved with, that some players may have been really struggling mentally but in the past it wasn’t necessarily something that was spoken about.

However she says since having difficulties herself when trying to come back from injury she can’t emphasise enough the impact it can have not just on your sporting career but life in general and therefore why it should not be a no-go topic.

And that is why she and her wife Kate Richardson-Walsh are Mental Health advocates working to promote good mental health and have teamed up with Legal and General to encourage action around reducing the stigma of mental health in the workplace – be that if you work in an office or your job is on the pitch. #NotARedCardOffence.

Helen Richardson-Walsh speaking out about Mental Health Awareness

Athletes have to carefully plan to succeed from hiring coaches to train them, nutritionalists to advise them on diet and physiotherapists to support them back from injury.

But in this multi-media world where you can be seen, heard and analysed 24/7 are you not asking for trouble if you don’t also plan to look after your mental health?

Many top athletes now include a psychologist as part of their full time team and I believe that the option should be available and easily accessible for every athlete in any sport.

But ultimately it is up to us as a society to make sure that there is no stigma or backlash from discussing any topic surrounding mental health and until that is the case many athletes will continue to suffer in silence.

#NotARedCardOffence #survivingorthriving #mentalhealth #MHAW17

Jemma Robbins

Jemma Robbins is from Sheffield, England and is a coach, the junior coordinator and welfare officer for Worksop Ladies Hockey Club. She writes topical content about and covers women's hockey. Jemma enjoys hockey, netball, football and generally keeping fit but is particularly passionate about hockey after returning to the sport she loved at school four years ago. Since then she has been involved in all aspects of her club as a captain, been a hockey maker volunteer and actively promotes other women to get involved in sport.