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Mental Health & Athletics - Are athletes suffering in silence?

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016 | Blog

No matter how well prepared you are for day-to-day tasks, or even an event in a few weeks or months time, there aren’t many people that prepare as thoroughly as athletes do. There’s a four year gap between the Olympics, and while there are other major international sporting events in between, the Olympics is seen by most as the pinnacle of an athlete's career. After years of preparation, everything boils down to one moment and they won’t get another opportunity for at least four years. Winning or losing can often come down to a few hundredths, maybe even thousandths, of a second, so if you’re on the losing side of that hundredth of a second it can be understandably difficult to come to terms with.


Such mental health issues are still quite taboo in mainstream culture, but it is a subject that’s slowly becoming more approachable with time. Unfortunately though, it is not one that we associate with athletes. Olympians and Paralympians are viewed as being almost superhuman in demeanor and skill; they are not a group of people associated with mental health issues. But when you consider the immense amounts of pressure that athletes are under, it’s no surprise at all.


There have been several famous athletes that have publicly announced their battles with depression and the effects it has on their ability to train, compete and perform. Olympic swimmer, Allison Schmitt came out about her battles with depression earlier this year.After suffering with the disorder for years, she felt it best to talk about her experience than keep it in. British middle distance runner, Kelly Holmes battled depression throughout her career, regularly self harming due to injuries. Jack Green, an Olympic hurdler almost quit the sport entirely because of his deteriorating mental health. This really is just the tip of the iceberg, there are many cases of athletes likely living with mental health issues, and who knows how many more are set to come forward?


Many athletes only come out about their depression after retiring from competition. This goes a long way to explaining why it is often hidden. It is likely many believe that showing their depression will make them seem weak, or that other athletes will somehow have the edge over them. It’s not just limited to athletics though, there are countless other cases of sport personnel  across a broad spectrum of sports, that are dealing with mental health issues. There is something about the nature of competition itself that can both positive and negatively impact a person's mental health.


The biggest factor for all athletes is clearly pressure.Pressure is the main driving force behind the success and failure of athletes, reassure is what drives them to get up at 7am and train, pressure is what stops them from giving up and pressure is what stops them from confronting and dealing with their own mental health issues.


Mental health is undoubtedly a wider issue, something that is elevated above both sports and competition. As a society we need to reach out to people that are suffering, and communicate that it’s okay to share their issues. 1 in 5 people in the United Kingdom suffer from some sort of depression, with many keeping it to themselves rather than seeking help. While we do look to athletes as inspirational figures due to their sporting prowess and dedication, maybe it’s time they were also seen as mental health ambassadors. A group of people that can help shift the attitudes and stigma towards mental illness by being more forthcoming about their own issues.


If you’re having problems with mental health, or know someone that is, visit http://www.mind.org.uk/ a charity established in order to provide support to those with mental health issues.

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