July 2, 2022

The year 2021, that of mental health in sport | You did see?

We know that the pandemic has tested us, pushed us to our limits, says Laura Fish, executive director of the Douglas Foundation, whose mission is to advance research on mental illnesses. Athletes are humans. For them, too, the stress increased. We have seen greater openness in the past year to discuss this issue. Maybe it made the athletes more comfortable talking about it.

It is not entirely new to see personalities from the sports world speaking out about mental health. The great swimmer Michael Phelps admitted to having suffered from a severe depression after his Olympic retirement. Stéphane Richer, author of two 50-goal seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, has in the past lifted the veil on his inner demons.

But this year, the cases have multiplied.

Former world No. 1 Naomi Osaka has taken a break from tennis by admitting to having difficulty dealing with her anxiety during media briefings associated with major tournaments.

In 2020, Naomi Osaka admitted that meeting with journalists generated anxiety in her.

Photo : Reuters / EDGAR SU

Calvin Ridley, an Atlanta Falcons receiver in the NFL, has announced that he will be retiring from his sport indefinitely in order to restore his sanity.

Lando Norris, one of the most promising drivers in Formula 1, has revealed that he used a psychologist when he was younger. He said he did this to help other people seek help. His Canadian rival Nicholas Latifi has also denounced this season the harassment on social media.

And there were two cases rather than one in the Montreal Canadiens. Jonathan Drouin opened up about anxiety issues that forced him to move away from those around the team for a while. His teammate Carey Price also spoke of a period of great darkness when registering for the National Hockey League Assistance Program.

The emergence of the subject in the sports world has gone beyond the limits of the field, press conferences and social media.

The popular series Ted Lasso, who follows the adventures of an exiled football coach in England, prepared the arrival of a sports psychologist in the second season. The Golden Globe-nominated series shed light on the psychological barriers that punctuate the careers of players and coaches.

I balled him Speak Your Mind offers a monthly discussion on mental health, with a different speaker. Behind the project is professional hockey player Riley Sheahan, and Tyler Smith, a survivor of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy.

A ripple effect in the population

Initiatives are multiplying, and the words of athletes are receiving more attention and more recognition.

The magazine TIME for example named Simone Biles as athlete of the year.

This summer, the American gymnast made the decision to withdraw from certain events at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. She who was perceived to be the big favorite then revealed that she did not feel well enough, mentally, to compete.

Screenshot of the site showing Simone Biles' face in the foreground

Simone Biles was named athlete of the year by TIME magazine.

Photo : Courtoisie / TIME

This past year has shown how athletes are uniquely positioned to bring the issue of mental health to the forefront of a societal discussion., can we read in the magazine.

Laura Fish is convinced that these speeches will help other people to break the silence.

One of the issues with mental health is the stigma, which comes from a lack of knowledge about the disease. But little is known about mental illnesses because not enough is talked about. Athletes emerging from the shadows break a vicious cycle, she remarks.

« It shows that even with good lifestyle habits, money, an entourage, these are diseases that spare no one. »

A quote from Laura Fish, Executive Director of the Douglas Foundation

The doctoral student in organizational psychology Mylène Tremblay also welcomed these speeches with open arms, and believes that high-level athletes can serve as models in certain respects.

There are a lot of things that can be improved to better support high performance athletes, but most of them already use mental preparation, for example, and we believe that this is a tool that could be used by more. .

Precisely, she believes, to entrepreneurs, who share several points in common with athletes. There are many similarities: performance, discipline, motivation as a driving force towards achieving goals. The two groups are also sometimes found alone or isolated.

With the organization Fabrique_A, she is piloting a project aimed at painting a portrait of the psychological health of entrepreneurs in Quebec. The objective is to lead them towards the development of psychological health, by relying in particular on strategies tested and proven by athletes. Self-management techniques, periods of meditation, breathing, which are popular with athletes. We want to create the same reflex elsewhere: if I have signs of fatigue, I stop to recover.

Mylène Tremblay notes that entrepreneurs are receptive to these techniques, seeing that they are used by athletes. Because athletes talk about results and performance. And when we talk about performance, we have the ear of entrepreneurs.

There are fewer taboos associated with mental preparation than with psychological health treatment. We use this as a gateway to comprehensive care for psychological health.

A 2019 Business Development Bank of Canada study found that 46% of Canadian entrepreneurs felt their work was affected by mental health issues.

To see athletes talk about their daily difficulties, despite the support they receive, despite the mental training they impose on themselves, can only be beneficial, according to Mylène Tremblay.

Seeing athletes or great entrepreneurs take the lead and expose themselves can have a positive effect. They are performance models who have mental health issues. It shows that you can be successful, perform well, with mental health issues.

But we must not forget that these are public actors with a career and a platform, she adds to qualify. It is an act of courage when someone shares their vulnerability. They are generally applauded. But when Mr. and Mrs. Everybody, a young entrepreneur, a student, a beginner athlete shares his problems, sometimes we don’t know how to react.

We are going to say to ourselves “he may be tired”, or again, we are going to wonder whether the person can be efficient anyway. There are prejudices to be undone here.

Not the same resources

Most of the time, the NHL and the big sports leagues have assistance programs available to players to help them achieve psychological recovery. To get out of torpor, athletes who pocket high salaries find it easier to consult health professionals.

The general population can be receptive to messages from athletes and be encouraged to talk about their health issues. The fact remains that the delays in obtaining access to a psychologist, for example, are piling up.

In May 2021, 20,000 Quebecers were still waiting for an appointment to consult.

There is a lack of mental health resources, concedes Laura Fish. We also lack knowledge on how to treat mental illnesses, more research is needed to arrive at more effective protocols. This is also how we will build hope for people with mental illness.

In the meantime, just agreeing to talk to your immediate family about mental health can be a challenge. Someone who sees Carey Price talking about her issues, yes that can be inspiring. He’s someone with a career, a level of popularity. It is a sign of strength and courage, indicates Mylène Tremblay.

« It is as if, since he has been so successful, he is granted the right to speak. But even if you’re not a public figure, you have the right to take a step back. It is not necessary to have a reputation for a psychological health disorder to be accepted. »

A quote from Mylène Tremblay, doctoral student in organizational psychology

However, it’s better to hear sports stars talk about mental health than to hear nothing, says Laura Fish. In the last year, the media monitoring company Influence Communication estimates that the Montreal Canadiens are responsible for 75% of all the media interest in the issue of mental health in Quebec.

If it weren’t for Drouin and Price, this social issue would have been much less raised on television and in the newspapers.

Yes, Carey Price can go to any specialist, but you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking it’s easy for him. Being a star can also work against him. He exposes himself to more people. His face is everywhere, raises Laura Fish. Mr. and Mrs. Everyone will not receive tweets from strangers who call him lazy.

In front of happy fans, he raises his arms before being joined by Josh Anderson.

Jonathan Drouin has found the Montreal fans this season.

Photo : usa today sports / Eric Bolte

It is therefore essential, according to her, that personalities with forums take advantage of it to express themselves. This is how we are going to break the stigma. That we will show that we must take mental health seriously and that we must invest, because it can affect anyone.

In 2022, moreover, Laura Fish wants the athletes to bring the issue further. We opened the dialogue, that’s good. The next step will be action, it will be necessary to act.

For her foundation, she is looking for an athlete who could be to mental health what PK Subban was to sick children, for example.

Mental health is underfunded. To change the situation, it takes concrete actions.

She wants the phone to ring in the next year or so, with an athlete on the line who wants to lend his face to a fundraising campaign for mental health. It is less glamour invest in mental health than in other causes, she admits.

It may be in 2022 that that will change.