The increasing frequency of sportspeople taking time out to deal with anxiety and depression is helping destigmatise mental health issues among high achievers, sports and psychology experts have said.

This year has been marked by a number of high profile time outs by athletes including tennis star Naomi Osaka, the Opal’s Liz Cambage, US gymnast Simone Biles and English cricketer Ben Stokes. Others like US Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long and US wheelchair track and field athlete Tatyana McFadden have spoken publicly about their own mental health struggles.

UTS clinical psychology professor Dr Ian Kneebone told Central News: “Broadly speaking there is better acceptance along the lines that things seem to be moving at the moment and there is a great progress forward. That’s been through education, but also reduced stigmatisation.

“The approach to accepting mental health, as part of health, allowed people to put forward that they’re not performing or when they wish to take sick leave from performing as an athlete.

“It’s been an issue in the past, but it’s massively improved over time. There are still segments of the society and certainly different communities and cultural groups that have a different attitude to mental health issues. And that would be reflected in their responses.”

He said recent media around star sportspeople flagging mental health issues had received a mixed response that had challenged public perceptions, and also shown the conflicting needs of sports organisations and athletes.

There’s always room for them to do more, but there has been a huge shift in the last 10 years.

“There have been roadblocks. The most recent example is Naomi Osaka, where a lot of people were questioning her reluctance in the French Open to be interviewed on account of mental health concerns,” he said. “I think while there’s less stigmatisation, [but] these major organisations, for instance, require those sorts of things of athletes.

“With the impact of NGOs like Beyond Blue and Black Dog [Institute]… and the mental health promotion around those organisations, more emphasis has been put on mental health by the government. There’s always room for them to do more, but there has been a huge shift in the last 10 years.”

This year’s 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games in Tokyo introduced new problems, with masks the new norm, social distancing and quarantine protocols adding to athletes concerns.

In July Cambage pulled out of the Olympic basketball team saying: “I’m a long way from where I want and need to be. It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a “bubble” Olympics. No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me. The past month I have been having panic attacks, not sleeping and not eating.”

Dr Cristina Caperchione, an associate professor in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation at UTS, said elite athletes were not generally perceived by the public as having the same problems as regular people.

“They are human and, like everyone else, they have issues, and they have a number of other challenges that they have to consider as athletes,” she said.

“Normally the general population don’t consider that. So, it’s been great and it is building awareness, it’s opening doors for conversation. They are really being very good role models for the younger athletes that are growing up [and] realising that’s okay to check.”

The pandemic played a crucial role in the deteriorating mental health of people around the world, according to the Australia Bureau of statistics (ABS) survey data collected from November 2020 to June 2021 indicate that one in five (around 20 per cent) of Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the month of June and March 2021 with November 2020 being the worst at 21 per cent.

Almost one in four (23 per cent) women said they experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress compared to 17 per cent of men. Among other groups, 30 per cent of young people aged between 18-34 years, 18 per cent of people 35 to 64 and 10 per cent of people aged 65 years also experienced higher levels of stress.

“I think it’s probably played a part in everyone and especially with athletes and especially with elite athletes that are preparing for things like the Olympics this obviously changes the regular scheduling and training, the support they have,” Dr Caperchione said.

“It’s limited and restricted. They are restricted by a number of factors, which [are] going to impact them and they are going to have to use a lot of coping skills in order to get through, which is going to impact their mental health.”

[The media] should take a moral responsibility in helping decrease the stigmatisation and helping these individuals and realising that they are human just like all of us.

The way mental health is viewed by society has drastically changed over the past 10 -15 years in Australia, with mental health system reforms enacted in 2009 under the national mental health strategy with states and territories putting more towards mental health spending, primary care delivered within community settings and priority placed on safety, quality of outcomes of care and measurements placed to clinician rated and consumer rated outcomes in all services.

Mental health promotion initiatives also improved community mental health literacy through substantial investment by organisations like Beyond Blue, Headspace and Lifeline, however some believe more could and should be done.

In Australia different sporting codes like NRL, AFL/W, FFA and supercars have partnered up with different mental health organisations to support communities and employees with more mental health programs, like FFA’s #playathomechallenge started during last year’s long Covid lockdown.

“I think there are fantastic new programs the AFL are running now, which are world class in looking at mental health, not just of their elite athletes, but also at the grassroots levels,” said Dr Kneebone. “Particularly this has been advanced through the pandemic when people do not have access to their sporting outlets.

“There is real evidence that is becoming appreciated by the sporting fraternity.”

The way news media has covered athlete’s mental health has at times been indifferent, from infamous headlines like ‘Lay Down Sally’ about rower Sally Robbins at the 2004 Olympics to more recent responses to Osaka.

“Media has such an impact on society and most people get all their information from the media unfortunately and they should have the moral responsibility to report things, provide assistance, advice and support where needed,” added Dr Caperchione.

“Do I think they’re doing that, I mean at times, but when they indicate you know stuff like this or when they bring negativity towards an individual’s ability to come out and talk about this stuff, it really puts us behind in times. And it does really affect other athletes coming forward because they don’t want to be scrutinised by the media or any other individual.

“So, I do think they play a big part, and they should take a moral responsibility in helping decrease the stigmatisation and helping these individuals and realising that they are human just like all of us.”

And if you or anyone you know is struggling mentally and needs help, contact one of the following support services: Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511.

Main image of Naomi Osaka by Peter Menzel/Flickr.