Mental illness amongst professional sports players isn’t new, but the last five years has seen a dramatic increase in players coming out to openly talk about their struggles with mental health. Not unlike a physical injury, they now take time away from the sport in efforts to recover.

In the case of the AFL, Dr Mitchell believes the gladiatorial stereotypes associated with footballers can be a barrier to the uptake of mental health services; however with greater education and awareness players are getting better at recognising they may have a problem and taking the steps to access help5.

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“We need to tackle the day to day wellness of athletes rather than wait to intervene in critical situations.”

 

Matthew Butterworth,

Mental Health Manager, Australia Institute of Sport

While coverage of this mental health is growing in the sports arena, its interest and attention still falls short of more traditional counterpart, physical fitness.

 

 

- Google Trends: Topical Search Interest within Sports -

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not just in sports with direct physical contact where this cultural stigma existed. John Bowe, Australian touring car champion and two-time Bathurst winner is a famous sufferer of depression and anxiety - a fact he was only able to accept, and share publicly post retirement.

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"Every day at one stage I would consider, and I don't like to even talk about that part of it really, ending my life. Racing cars is a fairly macho occupation in a funny sort of way, it's a bit gladiatorial so I didn't want anyone to know. I felt like an actor, honestly."

John Bowe

Racing Rriver

 

 

Quote excerpt from ABC6

Australia isn’t a unique breeding ground for mental illness in sport. Globally, we’re seeing similar examples from teams and athletes. In 2017, a study found 37% of European professional football players experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression over a 12-month period7. In North America, the NBA commissioner Adam Silver says many of the league’s players are “truly unhappy.”8

 

A study of Canada’s Olympic swimmers found that an astonishing 68% of the 50 swimmers on the team “met the criteria for a major depressive episode.”9 Athletes are clearly heavily prone to struggles with mental illnesses, an estimate from a 2013 study found the incidence of depression doubled among the elite top 25% of athletes9.

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So why have professional sports become a microcosm of the mental illness epidemic? There are many contributing factors, some new and some old.

you have worked for years with an extreme intensity and a singular goal of playing professional sport...

 

5am starts…

 

4 hours of daily training...

 

A diet regime that makes Pete Evans cringe…

 

24/7 fan service; open access to your entire life.

 

Then it’s game day,

 

You walk out onto the field.

 

85,000 cheering fans.

 

12 team members banking on your performance..

 

First contact with the ball… you fluff it.

 

Fans start booing, you try harder to regain confidence...

 

You fail again.

 

You get the ball back and kick a scorcher.

 

You’re back.

 

Then on the very next play, you go for the bomb and tear a hamstring.

 

Game over.

 

 

Image: Jose A Thompson

Sure, everyone dreams of being a sporting hero. Although we all fail to imagine (and at times acknowledge) that such an extreme focus can result in success, but can also come at the cost of your own identity, or broader perspective, outside the world of athletic excellence. The below extract from Ireland’s Health Research Institute10 gives a more clinical, albeit chilling analysis:

 

 

In addition to the ‘performance narrative’ which some scholars observe as the dominant message that athletes internalize within their day to day lives (Douglas and Carless, 2006), studies have also discussed how athletes are exposed to values that serve to reinforce qualities (competition, aggression, and toughness) which are often associated with traditional conceptualisations of masculinity (Steinfeldt and Steinfeldt, 2012). Various papers have added to our understanding of masculinity and the possible negative consequences associated with constructions of strength and toughness in sport (Young et al., 1994; Wacquant, 2001; Sinden, 2010).

Outside of the pressure a career in professional sport creates, changes in technology over the past decade have had an undeniable impact on the prevalence of mental illness in athletes, and dramatically evolved the relationship between fan and player.

 

Social media, is of course the culprit for this. The rise of social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have irrevocably magnified the spotlight athletes are under, and their experiences with fan feedback. This has exacerbated an existing issue, and transformed it into an epidemic.

 

 

Take these three examples from Fox Sports
posts on Facebook across three sporting codes:

Sean Ingles of The Guardian11 writes “a couple of decades ago sports stars could make mistakes that were the equivalent of bears defecating in the woods, given that no one heard about them. Now the scrutiny and attention is unrelenting, especially when every phone doubles as a video camera and every fan has a hotline into players’ brains via Twitter. It is hard to ignore a bad game or poorly worded comment when it is met with a 24-hour barrage of bile on social media.”

Image: Michael Willson / Getty Images

Rather unsurprisingly, female athletes are subjected to more vitriol on social media than their male counterparts, confirmed a recent study by advocacy group, Plan International. This came into illuminating focus in March when a picture of AFLW star Tayla Harris was posted on the 7AFL page and received a wave of despicable abuse.

See the Tweet

Although slightly less public, technology is also affecting the dynamics and camaraderie within a team. Isiah Thomas, an ex-NBA player once said “Championships are won on the bus” because of the team excitement, atmosphere and support. Adam Silver, NBA commissioner pointed out that now, on those same buses or planes to the game “players are almost constantly wearing headphones.”8 Athletes’ connection to their mobile devices, streaming music services, and wireless headphones can inadvertently isolate themselves into a bubble where they lose the backbone and connection to the team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While this may seem like a small evolution, it’s impact can’t be underestimated given that athletes can struggle to find people outside their fellow teammates who can empathise and understand their day-to-day experience.

 

 

Image: Penrith Panthers

Image: Getty Images

Image: Urstore

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It’s not all doom and gloom. Actions are being taken in and outside of sports to make positive change. The AFLPA is dedicating significant resources to battle mental illness with $900K earmarked in 2019 to fund mental health on the 18 AFL teams.11 They have a dedicated tab on the AFL site for mental wellness and have struck up partnerships with multiple organisations including RUOK?, Movember and beyondblue to raise awareness and offer support to men (& women) struggling with mental illnesses.

In preseason training this year, the Parramatta Eels practiced meditation and mindfulness to build better relationships.13 They partnered with Resilience Project, an organisation that has worked with Australian Cricket, Netball & Soccer teams, all NRL clubs, AFL and A-League to use positive mental health strategies to build more resilience and happiness amongst players.

Image: Parramatta Eels

At the Australia Institute of Sport, there is now a division dedicated to mental wellbeing.14 With a $7mil endowment for the next two years they’ll fund over two dozen psychologists around Australia with free access for Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games athletes. Plus additional psychiatrists, neurophychologists and athlete wellbeing managers for 20 different sports.

Image: Australian Institute of Sport

Australian state governments are also taking notice, the royal commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System has begun a once in a generation study to accelerate improvements in access to mental health services, service navigation and models of care.4

 

In a recent analysis of player departure announcements, we observed significant differences in sentiment for physical injuries versus mental health related news. Physical injuries were more likely to be met with comments of sympathy and well wishes for recovery compared to mental health related announcements, more often met with questions around legitimacy of claims.

 

 

PLAYER TIME OFF NEWS ANNOUNCEMENTS COMMENT SENTIMENT – JUL 2019

Interestingly, when we investigated the Reddit threads on the topic of mental health in Aussie sports, posts were overwhelmingly positive. Commenters sympathised with players and shared their own stories of suffering. How curious that we can be so cruel when our identities are visible on Facebook, and kind in the anonymity of Reddit. Our hypothesis is that Reddit is a community based platform, and while communities can violently turn against each other, within themselves they typically remain supportive. Whereas Facebook comment streams are individual based with an ‘every-man-for-themselves’ mentality.

 

As the professional sporting codes work to get players the help they need and take time away from the sport, their absences do not evade notice. In the media, journalists and producers have to balance providing explanations about what the Australian public wants to know, with player privacy. Ultimately, for players who are suffering from mental illnesses and commenting about it in public, they encounter words of support, but also derision.