Advocates for Athletes' Mental Health

We Are All Advocates For Our Athletes' Mental Health
Posted on 01/13/2021
We Are All Advocates For Our Athletes' Mental Health

Kirsten Probst, ATC
Ponderosa High School


As an athletic trainer, advocating for the health and wellness of our athletes is our biggest priority. Advocating for their physical well being is not where that responsibility stops, we are mental health advocates as well. Though a battle with mental health does not present on the skin as a bruise, open wound, or swelling, it is still there and should be cared for with the same passion as any physical injury. As parents, coaches, peer athletes, athletic trainers, and even teachers we are all advocates for these athletes. This article discusses the ways any individual can be an advocate for young athletes and have a positive role in promoting mental health awareness in this age group.

Approximately one in six people between the ages of 10 and 19 battle with their mental health, and about half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14. Many mental health issues are undetected or untreated (World Health Organization, 2019). Adolescence is a time in an individual's life to develop beneficial communication skills, coping mechanisms, and conflict resolution skills (Brenner, Labotz, Sugimoto & Stracciolini, 2019). As young people develop, athletics can be both beneficial and detrimental to this process, depending on the environment in which they are competing (Hurley et al., 2017; Pike, 2018; Brenner et al., 2019). Athletic participation provides the adolescent with an avenue to express emotions, witness healthy problem-solving and communication skills, and take part in a social group (Hurley et al., 2017). At the same time, athletic participation is an additional responsibility that includes pressure to meet team demands, conform to social norms and to constantly perform well (Hurley et al., 2017). This coupled with academics, personal/social lives, or injury can cause athletes to experience adversities regarding their mental health (Hurley et al., 2017; Brenner et al., 2019).

There are many ways to help an adolescent athlete through potential difficulties. The first step is to become educated in recognizing how a battle with mental health may present itself in young athletes. This helps to be aware and recognize when a young athlete is struggling and when it may be time to seek professional assistance. The World Health Organization is an association that provides information on many public health concerns across the globe, and is a great tool for research. Other great starting places include the public health database for your county (Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, 2020). These organizations provide statistics about your population and similar populations around the globe.

Mental health is such a broad topic and discussing mental health may be uncomfortable for someone who is not a professional in the field (Hurley et al., 2017). As an advocate, it is not our responsibility to treat or fix what someone is struggling with. Our role is to provide an environment where someone will feel safe talking about what has been bothering them. How mental health is discussed in our classrooms, at home, or practice areas, influences how the athletes talk about mental illness. Most often, how a person feels during a conversation is what they remember rather than what was said (Turner & Harder, 2018). An emotionally safe environment is one that promotes collaboration, enhances innovation, and allows each party to speak freely without punitive behavior (Turner & Harder, 2018). Conversations about mental health are difficult so it is important to not only discuss the issue but to also allow the athlete to guide what they are comfortable sharing (Turner & Harder, 2018). Conversations about mental health are not a one-and-done process, multiple conversations are needed to make a person feel safe enough to talk about their story (Turner & Harder, 2018; Haugen, 2019). Open communication about mental health even before there is an evident need to discuss adolescents' mental health is also important to reducing the stigma around mental illness (Haugen, 2019).

After creating a safe environment, the goal should be to discuss seeing a psychologist. The best place to start is by using the resources at your disposal. The conversation for seeking help should be based on the athlete and they should be encouraged, not forced, to share their battle with someone who can help. A great resource is to seek assistance from your athletes' mental health counsellors at their school. They can help you find psychologists in your area that could be the best fit for the young athlete. They are connected to the student’s community of teachers and can also provide the athlete with very helpful skills to start combating these obstacles at school. We also strongly encourage advocates to do research on psychology professionals in your area. There is also no harm in calling a mental health clinic and asking questions about their practice and the professionals they have. (Haugen, 2019).

Discussing mental health is not easy. However, there are a lot of tools that are very easy to access online and far too many to put in one article. The first tool I recommend is Mental Health First Aid certification. This is very similar to a CPR certification, where it is a short term course that teaches you how to recognize the signs of different mental illnesses and how to respond and seek help in a mental health crisis. This is offered not only to healthcare professionals but also to the general population and provides a wonderful set of tools. Another resource I find helpful mainly for the athlete is the University of Michigan's, Athletes Connected initiative. The University of Michigan has created a website for student-athletes geared toward improving their mental health. There are videos of athletes telling their stories, resources for support, and much more.

Over 90% of cases of mental illness can go into remission and 100% have the opportunity to go into remission, but only with help and support (Haugen, 2019). As an advocate, we are part of the athletes' support team and our role is to help provide a safe and supportive environment so that a professional can provide effective treatment (Haugen, 2019). There is a large stigma around mental illness especially in the world of athletics. Stigma is a big reason for why someone may not seek help during their battle (Haugen, 2019). Gaining a better understanding of mental illness, cultivating a psychologically safe environment, and using our resources to advocate for help-seeking behaviours may make the difference in a young athlete’s life.

References:
  1. Athletes Connected. (University of Michigan). Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://athletesconnected.umich.edu/videos/

  2. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (2020, March 23). Find your local public health agency. Retrieved March 23, 2020, from https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdphe/find-your-local-public-health-agency

  3. Haugen, E. (2019, June). Mental Health Series: Current Mental Health Issues Affecting Secondary School and Collegiate Athletes. Mental Health Series: Current Mental Health Issues Affecting Secondary School and Collegiate Athletes. Online program.

  4. Mental Health First aid. National Council of Behavioral Health, & Missouri Department of Mental Health. (2019, June 17). Youth. Retrieved March 24, 2020, from https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/population-focused-modules/youth/

  5. Pike, E. (2018), "Mental Illness Stigma", Sport, Mental Illness, and Sociology (Research in the Sociology of Sport, Vol. 11), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 9-22. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1476-285420180000011002

  6. Brenner, J. S., Labotz, M., Sugimoto, D., & Stracciolini, A. (2019). The Psychosocial Implications of Sport Specialization in Pediatric Athletes. Journal of Athletic Training, 54

  7. World Health Organization. (2020). Adolescent mental health. Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health
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