Taking the Next Steps: Mental Health & Professional Sports

Posted by Greg Hire on 24 February 2017

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Sport comes with injuries; it’s a fact of life. Whether it’s a rolled ankle or fractured arm, a pulled hammy or a broken nose, play long enough and there’s a fair chance you will get hurt. Professional clubs have a multitude of support staff, this includes doctors, trainers, physiotherapists and medics on the payroll to deal with these mishaps quickly, with seriously injured players rushed straight to hospital and into surgery, then supported through their rehabilitation. But what happens when it isn’t a physical condition, but a psychological one?

Society has long admired men who exhibit signs of bravado, and in recent times we’ve seen the ‘s’ word pop up on the spotlight of sport. When the media reported on Former Wallaby Dan Vickerman’s death on Sunday, the response was immediate and overwhelming. The Rugby community, and also the general community, were devastated. When it comes to the story of Dan Vickerman, people will naturally have scepticism of the nature of his death. There will always be questions. Was he struggling? Could something have been done? Can we do more to prevent mental health issues in former athletes? Can we do more to support men? Ultimately it is premature and insensitive to mull over such things at this time. But it’s important to speak about the broader issue of depression amongst our professional sportspeople.  For sport, the black dog is no longer the elephant in the room. It’s been dragged out into the light.

The statistics are staggering – if you aren’t aware, suicide remains the leading cause of death in Australians aged between 15 and 44. Eight deaths by suicide in Australia each day and the suicide rate amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is more than double the national rate. In 2015, suicide accounted for 5.2% of all Indigenous deaths compared to 1.8% for non-Indigenous people. For every death by suicide, it is estimated that as many as 30 people attempt to end their lives. That is approximately 65,300 suicide attempts each year.

So why is it becoming more common to hear documented issues of former athletes? To me, it illustrates the significant challenges athletes face after their sporting career have finished – and for many this starts well before their athletic endeavours have finished. We have to stop judging and start helping. It needs to be a collaborative, collective effort- not a disconnected, confused, blinkered approach.

There is plenty of pressure on young people to succeed at a professional level, this in return leading to very challenging times as most professionals are obsessive by nature- I know I am. Some of us know nothing else than how to compete at the highest level in their chosen sport.

Mental health needs to be taught in schools, and there needs to be greater emphasis on it in professional sports and even grassroots sports. In schools, if you are poor at mathematics or science, there is a support system to handle those difficulties…but where are the systems in place for a teenager who needs assistance with their mental health? Sporting clubs are a place for frank discussion between players, which can be all-important in seeking help.

Clubs are an opportunity to get to kids in an environment where they’re motivated and they pay attention. They’re great places to notice potential problems and give avenues for support. Peer support, teammates and coaches are a fantastic outlet with a ‘community feel.

It would be naïve to assume we can completely fix the situation present (and definitely quickly at that) but we can help start. We can ease the transition by enabling athletes to find their purpose that transcends their sporting pursuits.

How can we ensure that athletes don’t have to start again after their retirement? Surely this contributes to a sense of helplessness, confusion, reduced self-worth and a real sense of ‘what now?’ Well, to start with we can instil a purpose, a vision, a much bigger picture to strive for! Something that continues long after their on field or on court-efforts have faded into a distant memory.

Having a sense of purpose inevitably brings others along on the journey – providing support, strength in numbers, and a desire to contribute to the ‘team’! Which is not too dissimilar to sport.

So, how we can we get access to the athletes to help them minimise or mitigate the challenges associated with retirement and transition to post sporting life?

Is it up to sports organisation to lead this work on the athlete’s behalf?

Is it education?

Is it the athlete’s responsibility to take control and ownership and seek assistance themselves?

Whatever the how or what is, we need it to happen now. It will provide purpose to the athletes – during and post their sporting career – and it will enable the athlete’s to share their undoubted skills, wisdom, and creativity with the world for longer.

There are a number of ways that athletes can help to reduce the chances of depression after retirement from sport, these include:

  • Reduce your exclusive identification with your sporting role and expand your self-identity to other pursuits
  • Discover interests and competences for other activities beyond sport (perhaps considering coaching or the mentoring of other athletes)
  • Acquiring stress management and time management skills (such skills will represent tools that help you better reconcile sport with your other roles)
  • Encourage strong relationships with coaches, family, friends and managers who care about your sporting success as well as your personal growth. Being supported by significant others to consider other avenues in life will help you keep an open mind and diversify your identity
  • Consult with a sport psychologist to help explore further avenues and adaptation techniques
  • Athletes by nature are mentally tough individuals and are often perceived by the public to be fitter, healthier and happier than others. It is this attitude and stereotyping that can make it more difficult for them to approach someone for help. Therefore it is highly important for close family, friends, team mates and coaches to understand that depression cannot always be seen and the athlete may indeed never admit to how they feel for fear of shame and embarrassment.
  • The most important take home message is to understand that despite their incredible success in their hard-fought and dedicated careers, the process of retirement is a difficult one and it is in this time that social support and communication is of vital importance if the athlete is to avoid the dreaded post-retirement blues.

Suicide is a word that is sensitive and we are extremely careful to state this, for obvious reasons. I understand that there are individuals who are unwell who may see it as an option, but we do need to talk about it and find out why it’s happening.

We don't need to know the intimate details around a person's suicide, as much as we feel like we'll find meaning in them. After all, how do these granular details really help us, other than to satisfy our curiosity?

All we can do in relation to those lost to suicide is to treat their families with respect and sensitivity at a time of unprecedented difficulty, and do our best to remind each other that whatever the circumstance, there is always, always hope.

* Anyone across Australia experiencing a personal crisis or thinking about suicide can call Lifeline: 13 11 44