Australian Sports Stars Put the Spotlight on Mental Health

A growing list of elite athletes is speaking out about their mental health challenges and in doing so breaking stigma in the community.

It seems as though we are finally starting to see a change in the stigma that once surrounded mental health. The view of mental illness as a 'weakness' couldn’t be further from the truth and with more discussion and openness about just how prevalent mental illness is, that backward way of thinking is becoming a thing of the past.​

After all, mental illness affects as many as one in four people.

Yet it's often seen as a flaw in character, an inability to ‘tough it out’ and ‘roll with the punches', and no truer is this than in the world of sport. Mental illness exists and it exists for athletes too. For male athletes especially, we fit them into the traditional norm of what a ‘man’ should be. The kind of language we see used to describe them with words such as ‘hero’ and the over glamorization of athletes as 'warriors' plays a part in our obscured view.

For an athlete there is the ongoing pressure and expectation to perform from a young age; what to do in order to win and therefore succeed; training, nutrition advice, physiotherapy, how they should act to appropriately represent a team or a brand, being in the spotlight and then there are the common downsides of the sport such as injury or being dropped from your team.

Elite athletes are publicly in media and by fans based on performance in the sport but also for appearance and behaviours outside of sport. It comes with an enormous psychological burden, which had been largely unrecognized until recently.

Australian athletes who have broken barriers in mental health

Australian Sports stars spotlight on mental health2

Over the past five years, in particular, there has been a large number of high profile athletes speaking out about their own personal stories and battles with mental illness. These revelations have inspired others to speak up and reject negative connotations that come with mental health.

Most recently, one of Australia's highest-profile netballers and Pickstar favourite Sharni Layton (pictured) opened up about a 'mental health injury'.

Others include:

Rising athletics star, Morgan Mitchell, who also recently spoke out

Swimming legend Ian Thorpe

AFL star Lance Franklin

AFL legend Barry Hall

Wayne Schwass, AFL legend who founded mental health social enterprise Puka Up.

Former athletics star Jana Pittman

Olympic swimming legend Libby Trickett

Basketball legend Lauren Jackson

NRL star Joel Thompson

AFL star Tom Boyd

AFL star Alex Fasolo

NRL legend Greg Inglis

Former Wallaby Ben Darwin

Cricket legend Michael Slater

NRL legend Darius Boyd

These are the kind of people society doesn't expect to be so vulnerable.

On an special episode of Insight 'Game Over', retired AFL player Barry Hall discussed how he came to the realisation of his own depression.

“I didn’t know anything about it because, you know, we’re big tough burly men who don’t get depressed ... that’s why I was steadfast in coming on this show because I think it’s a real issue in sport,” he said.

Mental health is a global challenge in sport

Overseas, NBA All-Star with the Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan recently discussed his own battles with depression. This is a man that is making more than US$26 million a season and his team is tipped to be a serious playoff contender.

Days later, Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers whose team won the 2016 NBA Championship wrote an article for The Players Tribune detailing his own personal story with mental health. Strong, athletic, rich men, over 6 foot tall being vulnerable and opening up about mental health, they’re not supposed to right – that’s the cliché?

Professional athletes have a shelf life (some longer than others) and facing life after sport can be a time when athletes struggle the most. Having an identity, a sense of purpose and knowledge of something can seemingly end once you retire. You are no longer in the same routine, your conversations with people change, you spend your whole life focused on the world of a pro athlete and a plan B isn't always thought about until seemingly too late.

In February 2017, the sporting world was shaken from the news that former Wallaby, Dan Vickerman, had taken his own life after a battle with depression. Vickerman seemingly appeared as a success story for life after sport. But he had voiced his struggle to friends that the transition from sport to ordinary life was difficult. This heartbreaking loss has opened the door to the broader issue.

Friend and teammate of Vickerman's Brendan Cannon said in an episode of Four Corners, "You go from being the king of your domain, where you know exactly what your job is, the influence you can have on your teammates ... then all of a sudden, you're standing on your own in a room full of strangers who are your new work friends and they're wanting you to talk about what you used to be and all you want to focus on is what you want to become."

The sporting industry is helping to drive forward acknowledgment and awareness about what is happening in society in terms of moving towards a more open dialogue surrounding mental health. What this means for the future? There is now an environment for talking about mental health, there is support for the next generation of athletes.

Speaking so publicly isn’t easy but athletes are understanding that platform to help people, even though it's not their ‘job.’ This is an issue that transcends sport or the particular sporting body, which has a lasting effect on players past, present, up and coming and most importantly, those who look up to these athletes.

Sports industries are now implementing frameworks for mental health to support players throughout their career. Beyond Blue has sporting organisations including the Canterbury Bulldogs, Hawthorn Hawks, Sydney Swans, and Sydney FC, encouraging players, coaches, staff and fans to open up about mental health.

Mental health, much like physical health, is something that needs to be worked on regularly. I believe that you should take time out daily – in whatever form works for you – to ensure that you can be happy and healthy and in the long run feel valued, purposeful and live with a passion for life.

Libby Trickett, Beyond Blue Ambassador

We look to a future where all individuals do not suffer in silence. With the courageous efforts of people speaking out we can break stigma and reduce the mental health toll. Sports can play its role, as it has always been a vehicle for societal change. It’s already happening, and it will only continue as more and more speak out and empower others to do the same.

If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

MensLine Australia 1300 789 978

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36

Headspace 1800 650 890

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