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Mental Health Stigma & Athletes

We know athletes as positive, hard-working people who constantly push themselves towards a goal or even beyond.

But studies show that 41% of Canada’s elite athletes meet the criteria for one or more mental disorders, which is a significant number. These statistics also show that athletes are more at risk for mental disorders than the general public.

A study of Canadian athletes training for the 2020 Summer Olympic/Paralympic Games found that nearly 32% reported symptoms of depression, 18.8% showed signs of anxiety, and 8.6% were considered to be at high risk for developing an eating disorder.

We’re talking about the best of the best: Olympic athletes. If these numbers are so high, and it's known and proven that athletes are at higher risk, why isn’t it being talked about more?

The best way to break the stigma surrounding mental health is to talk about it, so let’s talk.

“For the longest time, I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness because that’s kind of what society teaches us … If someone wants to call me weak for asking for help, that’s their problem. Because I’m saving my own life.” – Michael Phelps

Why are athletes so affected?

Being an athlete isn’t easy; we all know that. Athletes are almost constantly under extreme pressure and requirements that add up to more stress on their shoulders than the average person.

Whether it's pressure to perform or achieve your goals, intense lifestyle requirements, or the competitive environment, there's a lot on an athlete's plate every day, which can get overwhelming no matter who you are.  

Athletes are expected to be these strong, unbeatable, unshakable people. When you’re expected to be tough, there’s pressure that you should be able to do it yourself and just push through it and not need help. Not only is there that pressure of not needing help, but athletes are also going up against mental health stigmas.

The stigma surrounding mental health makes it harder for athletes to reach out and get help, which worsens the situation by letting the issues go untreated. In fact, studies show that stigma is one of the main reasons that athletes don’t seek help for mental health. The other top reasons athletes don’t seek help are a lack of understanding of mental health, being too busy to seek help, and gender stereotyping.

By talking about mental health issues in the athletic and fitness communities, we can work toward building understanding around mental health and breaking the stigmas and stereotypes that are associated with mental health for athletes.

What are the signs?

Many athletes won’t seek mental health support when needed, which tends to worsen matters. You don’t need to try to push through it on your own. Know what signs to look for in yourself and your peers.

Signs that might suggest the need for a mental health assessment:

• Sleeping problems,
• Irritability,
• Frustration or “bad attitude”,
• Low energy
• Changes in eating habits
• Avoiding social situations
• Decreased motivation

There are many resources for athletes who may be struggling or looking for support. Athletics Canada has extensive resources through their Safe Sport program for athletes and coaches, from mental health and injury prevention to equity, diversity, and inclusion support. The Canadian Centre For Mental Health and Sport (CCMHS) also has a variety of resources, including access to support and educational materials.

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“I say put mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport, and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to.” – Simone Biles

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