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Mental illness is the taboo in elite athletes that needs addressing

I grew up in an intense sporting environment. Some of the major lessons learned were “mental toughness” and “win or go home”. Second place was viewed as first loser. Showing weakness was not an option. I admit, I used to also think that people who could not cope with the stress of the game were weak. Being able to cope under pressure was part of being a winner. I am a product of that time. It was all about survival of the fittest.

Even today I hear people still say: “You mean to tell me he gets paid £XXXXXs a week and he is stressed?? He needs to sort himself out!”

With age comes a new perspective. I am now a Doctor with a great deal of experience and realize there is a fine line between mental toughness, choking under pressure and not coping because of mental illness. Elite athletes are no less likely to suffer from mental illness than any of us – however they might be slower to ask for help. Mental illness should be treated in the same way as a physical injury.

So today why are we seeing so many athletes suffering with mental illness? Maybe this problem was always there, maybe the pressure is much greater due to social media and there is merely more of an awareness of the issue.

Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, it is becoming clear through research that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, social, psychological, and environmental factors. Whatever the cause, we need to be more compassionate with mental illness, after all, it could happen to any of us.

I wrote this particular blog because I want you to think the next time you read about a famous athlete suffering with mental illness, I want you to think that this person is not well. Regardless of fame and fortune, mental illness is an “equal opportunity disease”. My dear friend Alan Colter used to say: “He is just trying to work it out.”

As you can see from the way in which English cricket star Jonathan Trott struggled with his admission of depression, we still have a long way to go in the way in which we approach mental illness in sport.

If you were suffering with mental illness you would want people to respect and understand your need for time to heal. Sports stars should be granted the same privilege without being accused of weakness.




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