Raising Awareness about Mental Illness

Yesterday was Bell Let’s Talk day, whereby for every text, call, tweet, Instagram and Facebook post, Bell contributed 5 cents to mental health initiatives. One in five Canadians suffer from mental illness; however, more than two-thirds of these individuals never seek help because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Bell’s goal was to educate people about mental illness in order to help change the negative stereotypes surrounding it, and hopefully encourage people to seek help.

Physiotherapists may feel more like psychologists as patients tend to develop a positive relationship with their therapist and feel that they can be honest and open about struggles outside of their physical injury. Although it is out of the scope of physiotherapy to treat mental illness, physiotherapists play a vital role in educating patients about different avenues they can explore to seek help, as well as recognizing when someone is a danger to themselves or others around them.

Sheddon Physiotherapy and Sports Clinic treats a large number of athletes, and one would think that this population is fairly immune to mental illness. Exercise and physical activity have long been shown to help with mood disorders, depression and anxiety. Athletes are generally very driven, goal-oriented individuals, in exceptional shape physically. So it’s understandable that most people assume they are also mentally strong and healthy. However, athletes are still vulnerable to mental illness for many of the same reasons as the general population. Some common risk factors for mental health disorders in athletes include:

Overtraining/Burnout

 Athletes devout a large amount of their time and energy to their sport. With this comes the pressure to perform and excel, which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. The heavy training schedule of many sports, combined with school, and in some cases work, can lead to fatigue and burnout in a large number of student athletes. Unfortunately, athletes rarely seek help for their psychological problems, for fear that they will be seen as weak and possibly lose their spot on a team. Athletes who do seek help will often be diagnosed with “overtraining.” The physiological, immunological, hormonal, and metabolic changes of over-training are very similar to those associated with depression. As such, some researchers have debated whether athletes with depression are actually being misdiagnosed with overtraining.

Eating Disorders

Many athletes feel the pressure to maintain a certain weight and body composition in order to be successful in their sport. Studies show that the prevalence of eating disorders in male athletes is roughly 18%, and anywhere from 32-60% in female athletes. Eating disorders are considered to be a mental illness caused by a number of psychological and sociocultural factors. In addition, eating disorders can occur with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, OCD and other mood disorders.

Injuries

An injury can bring a lot of stress and anxiety to athletes. They oftentimes feel pressure from coaches, teammates and parents to return to the game as soon as possible and in tip top shape. If athletes are playing on a scholarship or looking to get scouted to the next level, an injury can make them feel like their chances are at stake. They occasionally are unable to train/practice at the same level of their teammates and the longer the injury takes to heal, the more an athlete starts to feel they are slipping behind mentally and physically. Whether an injury is career ending or a minor sprain it will bring a host of negative emotions and can lead to further psychological issues.

Retirement

Since athletes commit all of their time and energy to training, their social circle and identity becomes strongly interconnected with their sport. As such, once their career is over they have lost their outlet, friends and identity. Retirement for athletes can be a time of great psychological distress, whether it is a decision made by the athlete or they are forced to retire due to aging, competitive failure or career ending injuries. Most athletes are not prepared for this life transition of entering into a world without extensive hours of practice, strict daily schedules and the adrenaline of competition. Athletes can feel a sense of emptiness, leading to depression and other mental health issues. Furthermore, retirement also shrinks your social support network, as athletes are no longer part of a team or group to which they can turn to for help.

Whether you are an elite athlete or an average Joe, we are all susceptible to mental health disorders. Keep in mind that mental illness can be treated and that you do not have to live through it alone. If you or someone you know may be suffering from a mental illness, please seek the appropriate assistance. If you’re not sure who to turn to, talk to a family member, friend, therapist or someone you trust that can help guide you in the right direction. Acknowledging that there is an issue is the first step to recovery.

Hughes et al., (2012). Setting the bar: athletes and vulnerability to mental illness. British Journal of Psychiatry. (2) 95-96.