Despite the often accepted notion that athletes are tough as nails and can weather any storm that comes their way, the reality is that athletes can struggle with mental illness too. One in five Canadians suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse or other mental health disorders and only one third of those who need mental health services actually receive them. This alarming statistic is the same for athletes: mental illness is as common in athletes as in the general population.
The truth is no one is immune to mental health disorders, including the best performing athletes. It is clearly acknowledged that athletes tend to experience circumstances, pressures and expectations that are very different from non-athletes, which can result in a tendency to minimize signs of weakness and an expectation to push through certain challenges.
Sport subjects a person to a unique set of challenges and circumstances that, at times, negatively impact their mood and functioning. Additionally, there may be subgroups of athletes at elevated risk of mental illness, including those in the retirement phase of their careers, or those experiencing performance failure.
Recently, CSI Calgary staff and sport service providers had the opportunity to learn more about mental health issues and their role as stewards for the athletes they work with. The seminar, hosted by Game Plan Partner, Morneau Shepell – a human resources consulting and technology company that provides employee assistance, health, benefits, and retirement needs – served to educate staff about mental illness, how to recognize warning signs in athletes and what they can do about it.
Through the partnership with Morneau Shepell, Game Plan athletes can access a range of mental health support services. The goal is for staff and service providers to support athletes who may be suffering with mental health issues by building a bridge to professional help.
One of the key messages shared at the seminar was that mental illness is not a sign of weakness and should be taken as seriously as a physical injury. Jay Keddy, Canadian Women’s Alpine Skiing Assistant Coach, says that he is used to dealing with physical injuries in his sport but realizes that mental illness is part of the game too. “This program can help us deal with issues quickly and better than we could on our own. There is some confidence that comes with knowing that this support is available,” says Keddy.
The seminar also served to outline the symptoms of various mental illnesses, such as major depressive disorder, which can help sport service providers recognize warning signs that an athlete may be struggling beyond the day-to-day pressures of the athlete environment. Keddy adds, “Sometimes there are bigger issues than you can deal with in the sport world. It’s not always a sport psych issue, it could be depression or childhood trauma, which is more difficult to address.”
When mental health issues appear there is potentially an immediate impact to performance, but the greater concern is that mental illness will impact the athlete’s life beyond sport. For CSI Calgary Para Medical Lead, Shayne Hutchins, it goes beyond the sport experience. If an athlete shares something with him that causes concern, he will address it with great care. “For me, all of a sudden it’s a human thing, it has nothing to do with sport anymore. It’s about helping the person with their life and what they’re dealing with,” he says.
Tanya Dubnicoff is the Cycling Centre Calgary Athlete Development Lead, a World Champion, World Record Holder and three-time Olympian in track cycling. She remembers reaching out for help during a rough patch in her career. Now as a coach she recognizes the responsibility to care for her athletes and not only focus on training and performance.
Ultimately Dubnicoff says it’s okay to verbalize that something is not feeling right. “It’s the grey area we don’t necessarily talk about,” she says. “We all know to ask ‘how are you doing?’ but this is about caring for the athlete above and beyond their performance.”
Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover
Photo by Dave Holland: @csicalgaryphoto