Ok not to be ok: Medals and mental health; why talking about mental health on the world’s stage has become a game-changer: Athletes talking about their mental health could change the conversation forever and for everyone, says Priory psychotherapist Dee Johnson.
Physical and mental health still don’t have parity, but this has got to change, she says, and elite athletes discussing mental health in a way that never would have happened in years gone by is a huge step forward – for everyone.
Her comments follow the recent launch by mental health specialists at the Priory of a podcast series Sporting Highs and Lows, where big names speak frankly about the mental health challenges of elite sport. Their testimonies are frequently very moving, and always honest. Some are relatable to any ‘extreme pressure’ situation. Many say they have learnt more from the lows than the highs.
Dee, who is based at Priory’s Chelmsford Hospital in Essex, says: “Acknowledging our mental health is being aware of our mental fitness in the same way we are aware of our physical fitness. The aim is to balance our emotional and physical lifestyle. So just as you might perform training exercises to prepare for a huge sporting event, so should you undertake daily mental health exercises which can be as simple (but as powerful) as talking and sharing, journaling, taking time out, engaging in mindfulness activities and more. Ignoring emotional pain is as harmful as ignoring a strained ligament. To avoid it becoming intolerable, including your emotional wellbeing in your ‘workout’ is, to my mind, essential. None of us are superhuman.”
What can we learn from those speaking out and sharing their experiences?
Dee says; “Speaking out gives others hope and inspiration. Having the self-respect to acknowledge your self-care needs publicly is so powerful, and a truly honest action. We spend so much of our lives scared of what other people might think of us, putting ourselves through stress and often physical and emotional risk. Being brave enough to speak about your feelings and your mental wellbeing can help others find the same courage. Emotional intelligence is about being able to identify your own feelings and formulate a productive response in the moment, so seeing elite athletes make these types of judgements can really inspire others to do the same.”
How can people shift their mindset from achieving success to maintaining their wellbeing?
“The first step is to understand that maintaining your positive, healthy mental wellbeing is actually success in itself. It is then about realising that when you have achieved a true sense of wellbeing, you are able to handle pressurised and tough situations better and in a way that suits you. Success is a personal measurement. But if the drive to attain it negates everything else that brings you fulfilment and joy – and is fuelled by a fear of failing – then the chances of you maintaining that level of success long-term is limited. And you don’t owe the world anything.
“Evaluation of what really matters to you is key to achieving happiness and success simultaneously.”
What is your professional opinion about elite athletes speaking out about their mental health?
“It is easy to think of our health and fitness in terms of the physical body – you can recognise a muscle becoming toned, or a leg being broken. However, the brain is also part of our ‘physicality’, so we need to start including it in our regular health routines. So, when we exercise and eat well, we also need to ensure that we are working on our mental health. The great thing is, it can be as simple as combining your physical and mental wellbeing by being mindful when on a power walk and noting that eating well is feeding your body and your brain in terms of helping it function effectively, focus and regulate emotions.
“Engaging in dancing can relieve stress, while any group training will release hormones, boost your mood and help relieve any sense of isolation or loneliness.
“Accepting and being honest about when your mental health is struggling, whether you’re an elite or grassroots athlete, must be as acceptable as saying you have pulled a hamstring and are struggling physically. The pressure on our elite sportspeople to be perfect is immense. But their mental health must be the greatest prize.”