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  • Dr. Lillian Nejad

Cricketers show resilience by speaking up & getting help

Over the past few months, three cricket players have decided to take leave citing mental health reasons. The conversation has been guided by questions like: Why would they leave at the prime of their careers? Why are there more mental health issues now? Is this a reflection of the sport or of this generation of players? These are reasonable questions but they are based on faulty assumptions. We discussed these questions and more in the Melbourne Matters segment on That Radio Show. Below, I have expanded a bit more on my perspective as a clinical psychologist and sports (watching) enthusiast.

Why would they leave at the prime of their careers?

The reasons for each player are personal to them and their experiences both as a private person and as a player. The fact that they have chosen to take a break (or leave permanently) when they have a bright future in their sport speaks to their courage to face issues that can impact the rest of their lives. It also speaks to their values-choosing their health over their careers.

Why are there more mental health issues now?

It is true that the rates of anxiety are increasing among young people but we also need to acknowledge that mental health issues among elite athletes are not new. Preliminary studies have shown that elite athletes experience mental health issues as often as the general community but that aspects of their profession may make them more susceptible to problems related to substance use, depression and anxiety (see below for links to studies).

Athletes used to just suffer in silence or display serious behavioural and relationship problems that masked their internal turmoil. You don't have to look far to find examples of this: Andre Agassi discusses his hatred for tennis and his substance abuse is his book "Open", Lance Armstrong and multiple Olympic athletes have resorted to cheating with sports-enhancing substances, Grant Hackett talks openly now about his relationship difficulties post-Olympics glory, Wayne Schwass, has been part of raising awareness by being open about his struggles with depression as an AFL player, Tiger Woods lost everything when his sexual exploits were uncovered and is only now finding his way back.

These are just some of the athletes we know about and it’s just the tip of the iceberg—there are many other examples among elite athletes e.g. the NRL, the NBA. This is not a new phenomenon—it’s just coming out of the darkness into the light. This path is being lit by the brave young individuals today who are willing to say, “I am not coping and I need to take time out to take care of myself.” This is what should be supported and lauded, not viewed as a sign of weakness or a lack of resilience but as a courageous act that will likely prevent problematic behaviours from developing in the future that is the inevitable results of years of hiding suffering and avoiding help.

Is this a reflection of the sport or of this generation of players?

As noted above, this generation of players are different—they are more aware of mental health as a priority and more open to seeking help. These three men are individuals with their own set of issues and reasons for taking a break from cricket.

Do athletes need to build resilience? Of course—we can all use more resilience. But to say that deciding to take leave due to mental health issues is evidence of a lack of resilience is an oversimplification at best, and extremely invalidating & inaccurate at worst. It can be just as easily argued that athletes who have made it to the elite level have already demonstrated a level of resilience that most of us in the general population do not have. To become a professional athlete involves a great deal of discipline, competition, stress, sacrifice, and physical and mental toughness—so...resilience! It can also be argued that making a decision to ask for help and take time out is evidence of resilient behaviour—i.e. making effective choices in response to challenges.

So if the reasons for leaving are not just due to a lack of resilience, what other factors may be at play? In addition to personal factors (that we may or may not know about), other factors are likely to include aspects related to the culture and demands of cricket and/or the realities of being an elite athlete. The fact is that the scrutiny that players face now (in cricket and in other sporting codes) is far greater than for previous generations. Social media takes a toll on anyone in the public eye and the effects can be devastating. Add to this the general physical and mental demands of being an elite athlete, the separation from family & friends, the constant travel, the pressure to be a role model, and the involvement in the business of cricket (sponsorship etc), it’s a lot for a young person or a person of any age to take on. So yes, Cricket Australia can find ways to prepare players for the realities of life as a professional cricket player and it is my understanding that they are working on this.

What can we do to better?

This is the question we should be asking. To address the issue of mental health among athletes, it is important to ask “Why?” but only if that question can help us get to “What now?”.

There are a number of ways to help prevent and treat mental health problems among elite athletes:

1. Prioritise Psychological Well-being: The positive outcomes of increased awareness and openness is that all sporting codes are lifting their games when it comes to well-being by:

a. providing access to skills-building programs including the development of resilience and mindfulness, and

b. ensuring that there are support networks available when they are needed.

2. Provide Accessible Information & Services: Young people are using technology for information and services more and more so it is important for well-being programs, information, and services to be accessible online. A great example of this is the collaboration between Rebel Sport and Aussie netball superstar, Bianca Chatfield who are providing an online mentor program for young female athletes involved in sports at the elite level. The program covers the importance of a healthy mindset, how to manage media obligations and pressures, and how to function effectively as part of a team.

3. Conduct More Research: There are only a few studies about the mental health of elite athletes. So far, a review by Orygen Health of studies conducted so far has shown that athletes experience the same rate of mental health problems as the general public but may also be more vulnerable to mental health problems (particularly substance abuse) due to the unique stressors that are part of being an elite athlete.

4. Encourage Self-Awareness, Openness & Empathy: These three men have highlighted the importance of speaking up. Often athletes wait until after retirement to tell their stories of emotional instability which means years of unnecessary suffering. Now that the stigma of mental health issues are reducing, people are responding by asking for help early and publicly. Elite athletes who prioritise self-care and their own mental health and well-being is likely to inspire the general community to do the same. Let’s keep the conversation going and good on you guys for getting it started!

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