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Celebrating mental health in sport

Copyrights: GVSU

Celebrating mental health in sport

10 October is marked as World Mental Health Day – this year, let us pledge to make mental health and wellbeing a priority in sport.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises 10 October as World Mental Health Day, aiming to raise awareness in the global community about mental health issues, unify voices and mobilize efforts in support of mental health. Every year, the World Federation for Mental Health sets a theme for World Mental Health Day, and the theme for 2022 is to 'make mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority.'

Elite athletes and their struggles with mental health

According to research, elite athletes experience broadly comparable rates of mental ill health, relative to the general population, especially with regards to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and sleep disorders.

Elite athletes also face a unique array of stressors throughout their sporting careers. These include sports-related injuries and concussions, performance failures, overtraining and sport-specific stressors.

A poor understanding of mental illness, busy schedules, and gender stereotyping and stigma are common factors preventing elite athletes with mental health issues from seeking help. There is still a prevalent belief among athletes that mental ill health is a sign of weakness rather than the hallmark of a ‘winner.’ They fear that disclosing mental health symptoms or disorders will reduce their chances of maintaining or signing a professional team contract, advertising campaigns or sponsors.

Greater efforts are needed to overcome stigma and boost mental health literacy among elite athletes. Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognises the importance of mental health among athletes, noting:

“The IOC hopes that all involved in sport will increasingly recognise that mental health symptoms and disorders should be viewed in a similar light as other medical or surgical illnesses or injuries; all can be severe and disabling, and nearly all can be managed properly by well-informed medical providers, coaches and other stakeholders.”

Athletes speak up

With discussions about mental health becoming more normalised in society, many athletes have also spoken out about their personal struggles with mental health issues. Here are nine athletes that have broken their silence on mental health

  1. Serena Williams (Tennis, USA)

Serena Williams had a hugely successful career as a global tennis champion. In 2011, Williams revealed that she had been battling depression since winning Wimbledon in 2010, following injuries and health difficulties. “I cried all the time. I was miserable to be around,” she said in a 2011 interview with The Telegraph. Williams has also opened up about postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter Olympia in 2017.

  1. Michael Phelps (Swimming, USA)

Retired competitive swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, boasting a total of 28 medals. Phelps opened up on his struggles with mental health, sharing, “After every Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression.” He also admitted to using drugs to self-medicate and contemplated suicide.

  1. Virat Kohli (Cricket, India)

Former Indian men's cricket team captain Virat Kohli recently opened up about his mental health struggles throughout his career, admitting that the pressure relating to his career had a negative impact on his mental health at times. As he noted: "I personally have experienced times when even in a room full of people who support and love me, I felt alone, and I am sure that this is a feeling that a lot of people can relate to," adding, "It is definitely a serious issue and as much as we try to be strong at all times, it can tear you apart."

  1. Aly Raisman (Gymnastics, USA)

In 2018, 6-time Olympic gold medallist and gymnast Aly Raisman was one of many gymnasts who testified against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, accusing him of sexual abuse. She announced her retirement in January 2020, and since then has been a vocal advocate of mental health and healing from past traumas. "I really have a lot of anxiety and that's when you're not present," said Raisman in an interview in 2020.

  1. Glen Maxwell (Cricket, Australia)

Australian cricket all-rounder Glenn Maxwell found that being constantly on the road had mentally and physically exhausted him, forcing him to take a mental health break in October 2019. "I was pretty cooked when I decided to take the time off. Big reason why I did take that time away is I was pretty mentally and physically ruined," Maxwell was quoted by ESPNcricinfo.

  1. Tin-tin Ho (Table Tennis, England)

England women’s table tennis number one and commonwealth silver medallist Tin-tin Ho admitted to facing challenges regarding her mental health, caused by disordered eating. "I've never revealed this before, but I've had a lot of issues with food," she tells BBC Sport. Like many teenagers, her adolescent years brought challenges and societal expectations which, combined with her pursuit of a career as a professional athlete, heightened those anxieties. "I was pretty concerned about weight and that was another pressure I was putting on myself," says the Olympian.

  1. Jordan Matechuk (American football, Canada)

Canadian football player Matechuk is a rare example of a player who spoke openly about being bipolar and also having depression. He has been in treatment since his early 20s, after a run-in with the law in 2011. “I live with depression. I suffer from the mental illness depression and I used steroids and marijuana as part of a coping mechanism to make me feel better and I’ve learnt,” he shared. He was diagnosed with depression in 2009 and admitted that he was ‘fighting for his life’. "I was fighting the inside demons and I overcame them and I’m feeling good now " Matechuk said in an interview in 2012.

  1. Gianluigi Buffon (Football, Italy)

Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has shared how he suffered from depression early in his career and had once missed a match for Juventus due to a panic attack. Buffon has enjoyed an incredible career, winning 23 major trophies -- including a World Cup. But, despite enjoying success from an early age, there have been difficult moments for the ex-Italy international. "For a few months, everything just stopped making sense," Buffon told Vanity Fair. "It seemed like no one cared about me, just the footballer I represented. It was a really difficult moment. One day, before a match, I went to the coach and told him that I wasn’t feeling up to it. I had suffered a panic attack and was in no state to play the match."

  1.  Naomi Osaka (Tennis, Japan)

Naomi Osaka is one of the best tennis players in the world. The 4-time Grand Slam winner and former women’s No. 1 stunned the tennis world when she withdrew from the 2021 French Open after refusing to participate in post-match duties, citing mental health concerns, and admitted to suffering from depression since winning the US Open in 2018. In June 2021, she withdrew from Wimbledon to take “personal time with friends and family” before the Tokyo Olympics. "The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote on Instagram at the time


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Hariom Agarwal


Monday, October 10, 2022 - 18:56

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