This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year carries the theme of loneliness.
While ‘loneliness’ creates images of physical distance between people, the lack of emotional connection, or simply not having someone to turn to and to trust when needed, can also severely impact upon an individual’s mental health.
The issue is becoming more and more prevalent in sport, and here Nekoda Smythe-Davis – world, European and Commonwealth medallist in judo – outlines the progress which has been made during her decade in elite sport, and how she would like that progress to now accelerate.
“Mental health is a topic that I have always been passionate about. I am firm believer that a happy and healthy person and athlete will stand the best chance of flourishing, and of achieving success within their sport.
“The status, pressure and demand on an elite athlete can be a trigger for many mental health issues. I have witnessed time and time again the comedown from a major tournament, like the Olympics, have grave effect on many athletes’ mental state.
“These mental health dips are more expected and accepted nowadays. Conversations surrounding mental health are far more open and understanding. I have seen a real shift in how athletes are more willing to be forthcoming and say, ‘Hey, I haven’t been doing that well, but I know how to get support or I am already getting support’.
“It makes complete sense that an athlete, whether having sustained a physical injury or a mental one, should get the support they need to get on the mend and ‘fitting fit’ again.
“As you can imagine, in judo, there has always been something of a stigma around being a ‘fighter. You are strong and you ‘fight’, no matter the circumstances around you, as showing weakness could take away from that image that you ‘should’ portray. However, thankfully, messages are being relayed boldly by lots of high-profile sport people – as well as individuals from outside of the sporting world – that it really is okay not to be okay.
“I feel that social media movements have also helped to myth-bust the stigma attached to mental health. Speaking about struggles with mental health are now seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness.
“The support available to World Class Programme athletes has improved dramatically over the last decade. I certainly feel that any athlete could and would get the support they needed should they find themselves struggling with their mental health.
“This is great, but I would like to see further preventative measures put in place to support athletes so that they don’t have to go as far as having a mental health episode and desperately needing help.
“Much like the principle of preventing physical injury, I would love to see ‘prehab’ for the mind – strategies to prevent overworking, burn out and more support holistically.
“If coaches and support staff are trained to identify triggers to mental health issues in their athletes, they are more likely to intervene or change course before it is too late. Like I said at the beginning, a happier, content person makes for a more successful athlete.”