LCSW, CGP, FAGPA
PhD, CPsychol, AFBPsS
Mental health, defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community,” is an important concern for athletes.1 In 2018, research findings showed that the prevalence of mental health symptoms and disorders among current elite athletes ranged from 19% for alcohol misuse to 34% for anxiety/depression, and from 16% for distress to 26% for anxiety/depression for former elite athletes.2 Research suggests that while athletes have overall better physical health than their non-athlete counterparts, they experience similar rates of mental health symptoms and disorders.3,4
Coaches occupy many roles in an athlete’s life and, as such, can have a considerable influence on their athletes’ lives 5,6,7. Given that coaches spend so much time with their athletes, they are in an ideal position to identify when an athlete is having difficulty with their mental health and can help athletes with receiving timely and effective treatment.8
Yet, coaches alone are not sufficient in preventing or addressing mental health symptoms and disorders in their athletes. Further, research has shown that many coaches are unsure what to do in situations concerning mental health, and express concerns that they may make an athlete’s situation worse.3 This commentary addresses the social, structural, and cultural shifts that not only coaches, but administrators, national federations, and clinicians can create to foster environments of athlete wellness.
Mental Health Challenges Experienced by Athletes
Athletes face unique challenges, including sporting pressure, injuries, competitive anxiety, body image (particularly in sports associated with a high focus on being “lean”), uncertainty about their status on a team (active, inactive, starting athlete), team challenges, uncertainty about retirement, and harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) from unhealthy sporting environments.9,10 In addition to the aforementioned challenges, athletes may experience further challenges stemming from discrimination in their gender, racial, sexual, and religious identities. Intersectionality, defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups,11” is an important framework to consider additional factors that may pose mental health challenges in athletes’ lives ...