Mental health and elite sport: Combating stigma of mental illness

By Dylan Cleaver

NZ Rugby Players' Association says eye-opening poll of former players proof that education needed to show a healthy mind just as important as a fit body.

David Gibson. File photo / APN
David Gibson. File photo / APN

All the great sporting franchises, teams, sportsmen and women are constantly looking for an edge; the small percentages that add up to big gains.

This week and last, the Herald has taken a close look at mental health issues in elite sport. The series was inspired by the large number of professional and semi-professional cricketers in the country seeking clinical help for a range of mental health issues. It was also inspired by a desire to examine the healthy body, healthy mind mantra.

It did not take long to establish that cricket was a game where afflictions such as anxiety and depression flourished, but equally it was not the only sport dealing with these issues. More than that, it seems the sports that are embracing the idea that mental health can be a positive part of their everyday discussions are the ones flourishing.

"Historically, everybody has focused on the physical side of sport - the physical preparation and fitness of individuals - whereas I would argue in high-performance, especially rugby, but in all sport, the biggest gains to be made are in the mental side of sport," says New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol.

"There's a saying that where the mind is, the body will follow. If you've got mentally well and fit and happy and motivated individuals in your environment from coaches to players, then the physical side will follow."

The NZRPA is pouring time and energy into this space. Led by former Blues halfback David Gibson, the organisation initiated The Rugby Club to develop networks of retired professional New Zealand rugby players.

To make sure they were providing the services that were needed, they sent out a survey to 123 past players. It was not particularly scientific and some of the questions were loaded, but the results they got back were eye-opening nonetheless.

"We couldn't ignore the fact a number of our boys were struggling," Gibson said.

About 35 per cent said they had suffered from depression or feelings of despair. Most of the struggles came during the "transitioning" period from professional player to a life after rugby, but Gibson believes the problems were probably manifesting before then for many.

"Emotionally there are a lot of places to hide in rugby," he said. "It's quite a safe environment in that respect. Every day is planned for you. When you stop and retire, that emotional safety net is taken away."

What the Players' Association has tried to do is remove the stigmas around mental health, which is difficult when the only time it enters the conversation is when a star hits the headlines for the wrong reasons, when players' battles with the type of addictions featured on these pages becomes public.

"We'll deal with mental health when somebody's got a problem. The evidence is there to say that approach isn't working because the numbers are not decreasing," said Hugh Norriss, Mental Health Foundation director of policy and development.

But there is recognition that the ambulance must reposition itself at the top of the cliff.

"A lot of the education and awareness work we are doing is really about educating players and the people around the players about mental wellbeing and the importance of understanding the positive side of the equation as opposed to just dealing with and focusing on the mental illness and negative, clinical issues," said Gibson.

"Everyone has the right to be mentally healthy, positive, and well. If we normalise the big picture, it may help others to speak out and ask for help and those around them to listen, or put an arm around someone."

This is not a "normal" rugby conversation. It's not a "normal" sports conversation, as has been shaped by decades of "normal" people putting sports stars on a pedestal.

But it might turn out to be sport's most important conversation yet.

This series was produced with the support of an NZ Mental Health Media Grant from the Mental Health Foundation and the Like Minds, Like Mine programme.

Pasifika factor

In any team coaches try to meld myriad personalities into a cohesive force. In New Zealand that becomes more complex because of the egalitarian nature of sport that allows Europeans, Maori and Pacific Islanders the opportunity to flourish. Each bring their own cultural "norms".

Young men have often been reluctant to address their problems, which is why it has taken the likes of John Kirwan to speak out before mental health and depression became part of the sporting conversation. Observers have noted that young Pasifika males are even more reluctant to speak up, which adds another layer of complexity to those trying to establish frameworks around this topic.

Former All Black Eroni Clarke, 44, has worked with at-risk Pacific youth in the areas of mental health and drug and alcohol education for four years. He said it was too complex an issue to summarise neatly, adding there was no one-size-fits-all way to start the mental health conversation. "You have to remember that with Pacific young people, you're not just approaching the individual, you're approaching the family and in most cases the community."

Rugby by the numbers

* 50% players (approx) felt they were not well-supported during their initial retirement with 29% finding it difficult to talk to people about their transition.
* 19% of players felt they were well-supported.
* 35% of retired players experienced depression or feelings of despair.
* 30% experienced high levels of anxiety or stress.
* 23% experienced alcohol or substance abuse.
* 20% experienced relationship issues.
* 13% experienced aggression issues.
* 33% suffered periods of financial hardship.
* 46% of players had been unemployed at some stage since retiring - of which 82% were unemployed for a period of three months or longer.37% of players are suffering major medical problems post-rugby career, while 51% believe that injuries suffered during their career have impacted negatively on their current health and well-being.
* 67% are worried about the implications that injuries sustained will have later in life.
* 70% of players miss the camaraderie of professional rugby.
* 34% experienced problems due to a loss of identity/public profile.

Source: NZRPA Retired Player Survey

The series

Day 1: Lou Vincent's struggle for acceptance.
Day 2: Cricket's stresses and Iain O'Brien's story.
Day 3: The JK effect

- NZ Herald

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