Heads first: Mental health in sports in Kenya
A troubled state of mind hinders our growth, development, and interaction with others; this is no different in the field of sport. Mental health in sport is not a common, but a growing conversation. The topic itself brings up two different discussions. The first is around the benefits of physical exercise and its impact on mental health. The second, which is at the heart of this article, emphasises the concern for players to thrive in the pressurised environments of competitive sport.
Athletes may often be presumed to be generally healthy, and may suffer from the misconception that their consistent physical activity makes it impossible for them to suffer from mental health issues. The term “mental toughness” constantly comes up in the field of sport; the persistence towards a certain aim despite any pressure. While this is important, athletes, just like any other person, are not immune to the possibility of being overwhelmed by their challenges.
Professional sport, like any other career, is likely to encounter various unforeseen downturns; it is during these dips that players are likely to break. Challenges in sport include but are not limited to long term injuries, contract termination, dip in form and harsh criticism that affect a player’s confidence. Additionally, concerns over game time and the pressures of settling in a new environment also affect the players’ development. Retirement also stands out due to the lack of education on retirement planning and being withdrawn from a physically active environment. The media also idealises some of the players with huge fan bases, potentially creating the view that they are perfect.
Although these issues are common in the sporting world, the African context bears more challenges for a sportsperson.
In Kenya, the sports industry has been faced with various challenges that are mostly structural. Those issues include unpaid salaries, unfair treatment of injured athletes and lack of health insurance among others. In an already-strained economy, an athlete is forced to survive on a salary that is barely enough to sustain their families. Adding to the existing challenges in professional sports, the athlete would be at more risk of falling into anxiety, depression, alcoholism, substance abuse and suicide. Despite this, sports clubs in Kenya are generally lacking in their psychological duty of care towards the athletes. This has negatively affected the industry, with great talents succumbing to mental health problems. This creates an urgent need to develop solutions that protect the mental health of the players.
It is important that we start by adopting local mental health support programmes that are active and accessible to all athletes in Kenya. Moreover, key stakeholders should require teams to add at least one full-time licenced psychologist in the team staff. This may be complemented by more conversations to create awareness on the issue from athletes, staff and the fans; this will provide a better understanding of the topic across all levels of the society. Many athletes fear the stigma surrounding mental health. Therefore, education and sensitisation are paramount. This will also encourage players to open up and ultimately encourage others to speak up and seek assistance.
It is the responsibility of sports leadership to ensure that the industry is equipped to promote the wholesome growth of the athletes by creating a sporting environment that supports mental wellness and resilience. This ensures their protection and that of the future of sports in Kenya.
Judith Macharia is a sport for peace and development researcher looking to develop more concrete and in-depth data on sport and mental health in Kenya. She has launched a project in partnership with Afyakili Organisation and Kariobangi Sharks Football Club (top tier) to create awareness and conversations on mental health in sports through art.
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