Today is #BellLetsTalk day – a day for really open and honest conversations around mental health and a day that is near and dear to us here at relate. Heading into its eighth year, this campaign has so brilliantly started a much needed and important conversation about mental health amongst Canadians, so we thought we’d talk about athletes and mental health.
In our work with athletes, sports federations and universities, we have come to realize how important it is to have a conversation around mental health. Athletes are people too, which means 1 in 5 will also experience a mental health problem or illness, so we ask, what are we doing to better support them?
We have found that a conversation around athletes and mental health naturally leads into the athlete’s transition out of sport and the countless hurdles that come with ‘retirement.’ That fall from grace is hard and messy – take it from Tom Hall, who so perfectly outlines his journey through retiring from sport. We are grateful to athletes like Tom who had the courage to start the conversation by opening up about his struggles with mental health. We wondered what we could do in our capacity as outsiders attempting to lead a change many of these organizations so desperately need, and found the answer to be simply: community.
During their transition out of competing in a sport they love so much, athletes struggle with their identity and the questions of who am I and what comes next? When federations and universities work hard at establishing a well-rounded alumni program, they at least partially answer those questions for athletes. Who are you? You’re still an athlete because you will never lose that – you’ll just be participating in a different way and we want to support that. What comes next? You’ve graduated into the next phase of your life in this sport and gained an entire community of those who have come before you and understand what you’re going through.
By introducing athletes to the stages of competition early on – which includes the final stage of transitioning into an alum, organizations can help address the inevitable post-competition struggle that comes with retirement. Showing athletes that there is life after sport is an important element in their transition, as is celebrating their retirement since it tends to help the mourning process and bring about closure.
As we use today to kickstart conversations about mental illness, let’s think about ways to get ahead of the inevitable and change the way we interact with athletes and alumni before it’s too late.