Stigma causes people to feel ashamed for something that is out of their control. Worst of all, stigma prevents people from seeking the help they need. And while stigma has reduced in recent years, the pace of progress has NOT been quick enough.
The problem is that the culture of sport and, more broadly, notions of Australian masculinity strongly contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness. They both encourage a “harden up” culture, creating an expectation that people should be able to maintain emotional stability in the face of adversity.
So what can be done?
Here are six ways we can reduce stigma surrounding mental health in sport:
Information on mental health issues can be included in coaching education systems and conferences. Mental health related issues are serious medical concerns that the majority of coaches are not qualified to handle much like many physical injuries and illness. Being properly informed and knowing how to approach and manage these health concerns will enable them to help many athletes.
The definition here is extremely important. Mental toughness is a quality that successful athletes have, but what does it mean to be mentally tough?
Often athletes struggle with this question. Is an athlete mentally tough if they suffer from periods of low self-esteem and depression? Is an athlete mentally tough if they have trouble dealing with excessive anxiety when competing? Is an athlete mentally tough if they have emotional reactions that seem out of the norm?
These behaviours can be symptoms of different mental health issues. Low self-esteem, low energy and withdrawal are signs of depression. Excessive anxieties are experienced in several types of anxiety disorders. Emotional reactions that seem out of the norm are symptomatic of bipolar illness.
None of those behaviours mean that an athlete is not mentally tough. Dealing with these challenges in a positive and effective way actually fit the definition of ‘mental toughness’.
Athletes and coaches alike need to have clarity around this term so it is not looked at as an “either/or” scenario.
Define Mental Toughness with Clarity
– Tolerance of discomfort.
– Performing Under Pressure
These are all components of mental toughness. But the ability of the toughest athletes to act in these ways can ebb and flow.
These traits are communicated clearly when mental toughness is defined. With this awareness, athletes and coaches are better equipped to correctly identify persistence, rather than an experience of extreme personal struggle.
There is a difference between pushing through discomfort and training with an injury. The former is necessary for an athlete to grow and improve. The latter can have a detrimental effect on the longevity of an athlete’s career.
Mental health should be seen in the same way — there is a difference between “changing your mindset” and dealing with depression.
Let’s face it — there are times we have to suck it up and push through. Just not all the time.
Mental health can be an uncomfortable topic, but the only way to reduce stigma is to actually talk about it. Discussing mental health in a supportive and positive environment — the type of environment we strive for in a team — is a wonderful place to start.
An effective tactic is to bring in guest speakers — a sports psychologist or an athlete who has successfully overcome mental health challenges.
“Crazy”, “insane”, “psycho”, “nuts” and “loony” are words often used to describe mental health. But it is this type of language that contributes to, and ultimately reinforces stigma.
There are many words that describe race, which are — and should be — unacceptable to use. The same approach should be taken when using words that harbour negative feelings and prejudice towards mental health.
When we celebrate and embrace the unique qualities of each individual, both their strengths and weaknesses alike, we allow each person to know they are a valued part of the team. This is especially important for those with mental health concerns, who quite often view themselves as abnormal, and are ashamed of how they think and feel.
With 1 in 5 people experiencing mental health issues, there is a good chance that someone close to you is facing that challenge, whether you know it or not.
This should be a huge motivating factor to advocate for reducing stigma.
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If things ever get too much and you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
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