Mental Health Awareness Week: John Steele blog

John Steele, Executive Director of Sport and English Institute of Sport Chairman

John Steele, Executive Director of Sport and English Institute of Sport Chairman.

As this week marks Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May 2019), John Steele, Executive Director of Sport and English Institute of Sport Chairman, discusses how it presents a timely opportunity to reflect on mental health’s impact on sport, the significance to the wider industry and the opportunities available to both individuals and the system.

Over the past decade, challenges facing everyone in the high-performance system have been considerable. Resounding successes have been accompanied by the need to understand an evolving and ever-changing culture, with the ongoing impact of mental health a critical component.

The rise of mental health issues in society as a whole is evident, with recent figures from MIND stating that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year. NHS Digital also reported that mental health problems have been on the rise in the UK since the 1990s.

So what is the reality of the situation? Is there really a growing epidemic of mental illness or are we perhaps seeing an increasing openness in discussing the issues? Over the past few years more athletes - both retired and competing - are speaking openly about their struggles.

Interestingly, the 2017 UK Sport Culture Health Check found that 24% of Olympic and Paralympic athletes were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the measures taken in their sport to optimise the mental health of their performance programmes. This percentage is worryingly high and has resulted in the creation of a new mental health partnership designed to tackle a growing need for intervention and support, led by UK Sport and the EIS (English Institute of Sport).

Speaking from my positions both as Executive Director of Sport at Loughborough University and Chairman at The English Institute of Sport, I have witnessed firsthand the incredible work that our colleagues have been doing in this area. Our academics spend hours behind the scenes researching best practice support both within and outside sport, and our performance programmes now all offer a comprehensive support and care package for our students and athletes.

The wider University has also made great strides in supporting those in need of mental health support. The Mental Health Support Team provide practical support to staff, students and athletes, helping them deal with issues as early as possible.

Traditionally, sport has not been comfortable talking about its impact on mental health. In an intense environment such as high performance sport, a mental health problem could have been portrayed as poor mental toughness or even lack of resilience. Thankfully, due to more people being prepared to talk and positive changes in societies attitude to mental health, the tide is beginning to turn. I see and hear people from all walks of our society, talking more freely about their mental health now and this, coupled with the fact more athletes are speaking openly, is key to creating a robust support network. We are emphasising the need to understand how we create positive mental health not just dealing with mental health problems as they occur.

For all of the sporting world it is essential to ensure that everyone involved is supported in enjoying positive mental health and feels equipped to handle all the experiences that sport and life bring them, both good and bad.

This includes everyone in the sporting family - students, athletes, coaches, managers, support staff, volunteers and leaders are all susceptible to the increasing stresses and anxieties of a society that is constantly demanding more for less. Now is the time to ensure that we all understand what it takes to create and sustain positive mental health and support one another along the way.