By Tim Felton
F – https://www.facebook.com/sportingtragic
In recent years, the issues surrounding player welfare, particularly mental health, has rightly become an area demanding increasing attention.
In recent weeks, former Welsh number-eight Andy Powell has courageously detailed his battle with mental health, revealing how it played a significant role in his premature retirement from international rugby. Despite media releases and press conferences that suggested his retirement was caused by long-term injuries, it came out later, that indeed he had been battling mental health demons for a significant period of time.
It says something about our society that an athlete still feels the need to lie about his, or her, mental health, predominantly out of the fear of being stigmatised, being perceived as weak, or being dished up further online ‘trolling’ from those who wouldn’t have the first clue about dealing with mental health concerns.
One does not need to look too far to realise that mental health battles are not merely confined to one particular footballing code, or one particular sport. Australian Rules’ Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin is just one of a number of his code’s stars to come out in recent years to reveal struggles with mental illness, joining the likes of Collingwood’s Harry O’Brien. So too have Darius Boyd in the National Rugby League, as well as numerous examples in the American sporting landscape.
Why is this case? Is it a sudden surge in mental health problems, or has it always been prevalent, but only now coming to the forefront of the public’s attention, mainly through athletes having the bravery and courage to speak out?
Many professional athletes are paid a great deal of money to do what many in the greater population consider their childhood dreams. How hard can it be, right? Train, play sport, recover. Repeat.
Sounds like a dream….if only it were that simple.
Professional sport can have its pitfalls. An inordinate amount of “down time”, as well as the pressure to succeed can weigh heavily on the mind of an athlete. The pressures of the general public, in addition to any level of self-doubt can be significantly impactful.
Add to that the role social media can play in allowing online bullies and trolls access to their targets, throwing insults behind the veil of anonymity that the internet provides, throwing insults that they would never have the bravery to say to someone’s face.
The problem is this – professional sport is exactly that – professional. In simple terms, it is partly a business. How exactly do you balance the competing interests of organisations, whose desire is more often than not to win competitions and produce excellent on-field results, with the interests and wellbeing of the individuals who are under their employment? There’s little doubt that this presents complex issues for all involved.
It is often the welfare of the athlete – the emotional well-being – can come last. Let’s face it, there is a proportion of the sport-loving population that don’t particularly care about whether the players on their national team are emotionally stable and healthy, as long as they perform on the field.
I’d like to think it is a minority, but one quick glance back to social media feeds during the trials of Buddy Franklin would indicate otherwise. We still live in a society plagued by stigmatising those with any kind of vulnerability, particularly mental health. It disgusts me, to be perfectly honest.
So how do we address this issue?
Should it be merely up to players’ associations, as well as the individual athlete’s support networks to provide the necessary assistance in the most crucial moments? Surely, the burden lies with everyone, particularly employers (both past and present), as well as the sport’s administrators at a larger, for example, national sporting bodies. If all these stakeholders were able to unite, arguably, the scourge of mental health might be able to be addressed in a more effective manner than it is at present.
Mental health is the one of, if not the, single biggest killer of men between the ages of 15-44 in many western countries around the world, particularly Australia, the United Kingdom and United States. If that statistic doesn’t shock you enough, consider the fact that one 2013 study found that former National Football League (NFL) players with significant concussion history are three times as likely to develop symptoms of depression as the general population in the United States. Statistics across other football codes, in general terms, would arguably be similar.
Sport – and all who love – share the responsibility to address the mental health problems facing our athletes.
If you or your team mates need someone to talk too, please contact: