Medical experts from across Scottish sport came together at a conference at Hampden to discuss one of the biggest taboos in sport – the prevalence of mental health issues amongst athletes.
The inherent risk of injury to professional and high-performance athletes is well documented but until recently, the risk to mental health has not had the same profile. Despite the public perception that elite athletes are immune from mental health problems, research has shown the issues surrounding life as an elite sportsperson actually increases the risk of suffering a mental health problem.
Work has been going on behind the scenes to understand the unique pressures faced by athletes and their families, and programmes are in place to ensure they get the specialist help and support they need as quickly as possible.
Mental Health Minister Clare Haughey opened the conference:
“We want everyone across Scotland to be able to get the right help at the right time, free from stigma and discrimination."
“Mental health and wellbeing is everyone’s business, not just for the NHS – so it’s great to see delegates from the NHS and a wide range of sports organisations and clubs, as well as colleagues from academia and the third sector getting involved.
“Strong research is now emerging to support the links between physical activity and positive mental wellbeing and we want to help everyone to be more active, more often. It’s also important that we recognise the mental and physical wellbeing of athletes within high performance sport – and this event provides an excellent opportunity for discussion across sectors.”
Athletes at the top of their game are revered as heroes and legends, but underneath the surface they may be battling crippling anxiety and depression just to get on the pitch or to the start line. Athletes including Scotland rugby international Fraser Brown and World Champion speed skater, Elise Christie, addressed the conference to share their experience.
Across sport, more athletes are coming forward to share their stories in a bid to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues and to spread the message that it’s okay not to be okay.
It’s an issue that is central to the sportscotland institute of sport’s culture, integrity and welfare initiative and that’s why sportscotland is fully supportive of today’s conference. The team at the institute are keen to stress that the support is not restricted to the athletes, but to the wider ‘team behind the team’ including the athlete’s support staff and family, as Director of High Performance, Mike Whittingham, explains:
“Since the inception of the institute, the wellbeing and welfare of athletes and staff has always been a priority. We have been driving forward a new initiative to look at ways the world-class performance system in Scotland and the UK can work together to provide better support for all our athletes and performance staff through the many transitions they will face in their careers."
"We want them to be the best that they can be, but we also want them to enjoy sport and their journey in line with our new corporate strategy on ‘Sport for Life’."
“Through this conference and by working collaboratively across sport, we are sending a very strong message to athletes that we are actively listening and committed to delivering a supportive world-class performance environment in Scotland.”
Dr John MacLean, Chief Executive of Hampden Sports Clinic and the Scottish FA’s Medical Consultant explains why the conference is so important: “Having identified the scale of mental health issues in Scottish football and common underlying factors we have successfully provided expert clinical input through the “Support Within Sport” programme.
“With the excellent work being done by other sporting, Governmental and voluntary groups this conference is about sharing best practice and discussing with colleagues as to the future provision of mental health support for our athletes.”
In 2015 Hampden Sports Clinic’s Dr Katy Stewart received funding from UEFA to research the incidence of mental health issues across the 42 clubs in the Scottish Professional Football League.
Over 600 responses to the survey were received with 64% saying that they or a team mate had experienced mental health issues.
As a result of the research, the ‘Support within Sport’ initiative was launched to provide an essential service for players and coaching staff by allowing almost immediate access to a specialist network of doctors, counsellors and psychologists.
Fraser Wishart, PFA Chief Executive, said: “The welfare of our members is of paramount importance to us and Support Within Sport has become crucial to the work we do. More and more players are being affected by mental health, addiction and wellbeing issues and, as a sportsperson in the public eye, they need a safe place to turn if they are feeling vulnerable – Support Within Sport is crucial as it provides this.
“As part of our work, we visit the 42 SPFL clubs doing Wellbeing Presentations to first team and youth players educating them on mental health and wellbeing matters and ensuring they are fully aware of Support and know how to access it.”
Scottish FA Chief Executive Ian Maxwell added his support: “The Scottish FA is dedicated to ensuring that the mental health and wellbeing of footballers in Scotland is taken seriously.
“Given the importance of mental health, it is our intention to be at the leading edge of support services offered to footballers, particularly through the “Support Within Sport” programme.
“Events such as today are so important to us and shows that we are working in tandem with other Scottish sporting governing bodies which allows invaluable opportunities to exchange knowledge and share best practice in this field.”
There is a similar picture in rugby and in 2018 Scottish Rugby launched its own holistic programme, Rugby for Life, designed to work with players at every age and stage in their careers.
The initiative aims to take a proactive approach to player support through education, awareness and hands-on experience to enable players to develop their mental health resilience and help in achieving a healthy sport/life balance as they transition into, or out of, professional rugby. Former All Black and Edinburgh Rugby star, Ben Atiga works at Scottish Rugby with the HR department and has been instrumental in the development and delivery of the programme with players and support staff.
Scottish Rugby’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr James Robson said:
“We know that awareness of mental health is growing in society and this is now being reflected in high performance sport."
“Our Rugby for Life programme aims to take a holistic look at the player and works to identify and tackle potential triggers which can impair mental health and the possibility of making poor life decisions or wider health implications this can bring.
“I am really encouraged by today’s conference and think it is vital sports share expertise and experiences to benefit the wider sporting community and society more broadly.”
The conference was organised by the Hampden Sports Clinic in conjunction with PFA Scotland, sportscotland, Scottish Football Association (Scottish FA,) Scottish Rugby and Breathing Space.
Attending the conference were doctors and medical staff from football and rugby clubs, practitioners from the sportscotland institute of sport, athletes, academics and representatives from the voluntary sector.
Find out more:
Cutting Edge blog: Mental health in sport: why it’s always better to talk
PFA Scotland: Support within sport
Scottish Rugby: Rugby for Life