A recent Mental Health working party recommended that all athletes be screened for mental health symptoms. Due to the high expectations placed on elite sportsmen and sportswomen, there is constant pressure to perform, and studies show that 35% of elite athletes suffer from some form of mental health disorder. It is important that the disorder is identified as early as possible and then it can be treated. In the early stages, education programs should be implemented, as a form of first aid in sport.
Mental Health and First Aid in Sport
In order to effectively deal with mental health problems in sport, public awareness of the problem should be raised.
- Implement prevention programs early.
- Raise understanding within sporting codes that athletes are at greater risk of mental health problems than the wider community,
- Identify problems early with routine screening, and follow up with relevant education programs.
- Don’t target the individual, target the group to change the culture.
- School-based sporting organizations should try to build resilience in young people, something many are lacking.
- Audit sporting codes to ensure that all the above strategies are in place.
A supportive and cohesive team culture goes a long way in acting as a first-aid solution for early mental health problems. In many football codes, the preseason boot-camp has been replaced with group sessions focused on weaknesses and vulnerability. This is open and honest communication where the players talk about their fears openly and are supported by their teammates They can talk about the tough times they are having in a respectful environment and the support generated is excellent first-aid against Depression, Substance Abuse, and other mental health conditions.
Recruiting Ambassadors to Bring Mental health and First Aid in Sport, a Message to all
Many young athletes have volunteered to take the mental health message to remote communities and rural areas. This is a sponsored activity to raise awareness and talk about risk by taking a holistic approach to health. In many of these areas where unemployment is high, suicide is the greatest killer of young people. Many retired Olympians and other athletes are participating in getting the message out there, and run a program for the youth on how to care for their health. Another team known as ‘Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement Team’, performs a similar function. One of the approaches taken by these groups is the importance of the whole food diet and avoidance of alcohol and substances.
Mental Health and First Aid in Sport / Schools
In order to get our teenagers moving and to reduce levels of depression in young people schools are placing a greater emphasis on physical fitness and team sport. In most countries, the levels of obesity are climbing and unfortunately, this is also happening in our schools. Many schools now undertake exercise programs to start the day. For many young people who now live in apartments and fail to get much outdoor time, this initiative has been welcomed. Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise before school has been shown to be beneficial to concentration and most of the children enjoy the activity. Others are involved in team sports which are mainly played on weekends. Early intervention programs are in place in high schools to identify children with early mental health warning signs.
Early Warning Signs of Poor Mental Health
- Avoiding social interaction
- Always sad.
- Out of control behaviors
Any of the above symptoms in young people can be indicative of an early mental health problem, and they should be referred to a Counselor for diagnosis and help. Being integrated into a team sport can help these children. Also to ‘buddy’ them up with an older mentor is a good form of first aid. Many schools now have a mentoring program between Junior high ( aged 12 & 13) and Senior high students (aged 17 &18) The younger children often feel overwhelmed when starting high school and this way spending time with their mentor can help them to iron out many of the initial problems experienced. By the end of the first year, they feel quite confident in their new school.
Eating Disorders in Sport
It is hard to work supportively with someone on a sporting team who has an eating disorder. Early identification and response to the problem are extremely important. It has been estimated that about 1 in 20 people has an eating disorder, and it is more common in sportsmen/women.
Eating disorders, if not treated early can result in medical complications and death. Adolescent girls are at risk of eating disorders, and many go through a period of body dysmorphia. People with eating disorders often go to great lengths to hide them and can increase their sporting activity in order to burn calories more rapidly, and high levels of exercise can be a risk factor. Sporting environments can play an important role in influencing how these young people view their bodies. If handled correctly sport can be instrumental in turning around the problem and showing the players how important food is in fueling their bodies and maintaining their health. Another factor in eating disorders is athletes who believe that their body type affects their performance and tries to change it accordingly. Actually, it is the perception that requires changing. it is important that sporting teams work closely with anyone perceived to have an eating disorder, as often this problem is long term and can take years to resolve.
The role of Sport in Good Mental Health
Sporting organizations play an ongoing role in influencing people who engage in competitive sport and thereby have a duty of care to them.
So clear messages about healthy eating, body image, and exercise constantly have to be delivered to the athletes. If the athletes need help with any form of mental health disorder it should be identified early and the appropriate help given to the athlete. Often, depending on the age of the athlete the family must also become involved, as a multi-level approach is required to get a good outcome.