Mental health support for athletes

A new approach to support the athletes and staff in Birmingham

Headed up by sportscotland institute of sport’s Dr Carrie McCrea and Head of Performance Lifestyle, Susie Elms, the project takes a holistic approach, taking care of the whole team through dedicated mental health and wellbeing support.

In a similar way to how athletes train for competition, the scope of the project covers preparation, Games-time and post-Games phases. Dr McCrea explains:

“In the preparation phase we have placed significant focus on education. We have delivered an e-learning module, led a Mental Health Workshop for Team Leaders, and worked with Changing Minds in delivering a Team Scotland specific Mental Health Champions course. We have now seen sixteen members of Team Scotland complete Mental Health Champion training which will help support the wider team across the geographically large area of the Birmingham 2022 footprint.

We are looking at a multi-disciplinary model to reflect both our positive mental health approach and our ability to provide safe and consistent reactive care. We have also been working with sports individually to increase understanding of their current plans and existing support and to work together to agree what optimal looks like for Games-time delivery and post Games decompression.''

“We want to make sure we understand the journey everyone is going on, so that we can provide the best individual and collective care.''

“Another important part of the project is Mental Health screening. We have chosen to implement this across the full team (athletes and staff) to reflect the importance of a whole team approach. We will look to extend that screening to the decompression phase as the Post Games period can sometimes be underestimated in importance, especially in the key preparation phases.  It is key that screening is only implemented if there is appropriate signposting and follow up available and so considerable work has been put into place to ensure that these systems are robust.  

“To improve consistency in clinical and operating delivery we have agreed Standard Operating Procedures and Mental Health Emergency Action plans which sit within the overarching Mental Health and Wellbeing strategy. Susie (Elms) joining the team as a Wellbeing Lead is an exciting and progressive appointment which emphasises the importance Team Scotland places on Mental Health and Wellbeing. ''Promoting positive mental health and sustaining positive wellbeing over Games-time and beyond is central to the strategy.''

“In our efforts to make seeking help streamlined, we will have a single point of contact as a referral route to the Team Scotland Wellbeing Lead (Susie) but we’ll also have Mental Health Champions in each of the village areas in case there is a local need and to support early face-to-face conversations. We will be drawing on our expert network of existing supports from a range of disciplines including Performance Lifestyle, Performance and Clinical Psychology and Performance Nutrition to continue in their excellent support of athletes on a remote basis which will support continuity of care. 

Success for us in this area is the Team feeling mentally prepared walking in, thriving in the environment and coming out of the Games feeling as well as when they started this journey.

Susie, who heads up the Performance Lifestyle team at the Institute has been appointed to the role of Wellbeing Lead for Team Scotland building on her previous Games experience in team management.

“Working very closely with Carrie, my role is to facilitate and coordinate the mental health and wellbeing strategy across the whole team. To be a point of contact, to be someone people can talk to, can listen, but also enable referral.

“We are working on self-assessment with the team so that people can develop a self-care plan for the Games. It looks at things like how to be prepared, what keeps you grounded, what do you need to have with you to make you comfortable. Simple things like a favourite pillow, your favourite music, preferred snacks, anything you need to keep that self-care plan going – and that’s for staff as well as athletes. Staff often think they are invincible, want to give their all but if they aren’t mindful of their own wellbeing, they can get tired and lose focus.

“We need to recognise that the performance sport environment does create triggers and we need to be more proactive in recognising that and providing support across the whole team.'' It’s not about stopping anyone from going to the Games or competing, that’s not what this is about. It’s about looking out for people, to say ‘we are here, we are listening and there’s support’.

“The wellbeing space at the Performance Centre will be a safe space, a place for people to share how they are feeling with no judgement. We know that people react in different ways which is why the self-care plans will be so important, it will enable us to understand the best approach to support someone in a potentially difficult situation.

“We often present a shiny version of success, but we are in a much healthier place now that we are starting to recognise that performance sport has triggers. We need to be honest with ourselves about that. Monitoring, assessments, body weight, selection, body image, social media, funding – I must get this medal for my sport to be funded – these can all be triggers which can impact on mental health and wellbeing.

It’s just fantastic that sportscotland is so committed to this and has given us the time and space to focus on developing this area. And I really applaud Team Scotland for embracing the mental health strategy and recognising the support that we can give them.

“As Carrie said, we don’t want this to end when the Games end. We are looking at legacy, capturing data and working with sportscotland, Team Scotland and our counterparts at EIS as well.

“For me, the best outcome would be that people recognise for themselves what makes a difference and have the strategies in place to cope. To be able to proactively prevent is a much better outcome – it’s similar to injury prevention through physio. The more we can have these conversations about mental health and wellbeing, the more natural they become. If people are not fearful, that’s a real positive.


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