Where once elite athletes were encouraged to show no chinks in their armour, today’s sporting heroes are keen to share their vulnerabilities in the hope of reducing the stigma surrounding mental health challenges. By Daniel Herborn.

Athletes and mental health

Mental health advocate Caitlin Thwaites looks to pass during the 2020 Super Netball grand final in October, the last match of her 18-year career at an elite level.
Mental health advocate Caitlin Thwaites looks to pass during the 2020 Super Netball grand final in October, the last match of her 18-year career at an elite level.
Credit: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

“Back in 2009 and 2010, I was really struggling,” says former Australian Diamonds netballer Caitlin Thwaites of her experience with anxiety and depression.

Elite athletes rarely missed games on mental health grounds at that stage; while the culture around them was obsessed with physical health, it was often indifferent to mental wellbeing.

“There weren’t a lot of athletes who had been open about [mental health issues],” says Thwaites, who ended an 18-year professional career last October with a Super Netball premiership for the Melbourne Vixens. “But it’s not an anomaly now. Some of the stigma has been reduced and a lot more people are speaking out.”

Thwaites is one of 22 Lifeline “community custodians” working in a program run in partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport that involves elite athletes and para-athletes sharing their stories at events nationwide. It’s just one example of sportspeople who have battled their own demons off the field using their profile to share coping strategies, inspire people to seek help and convey a message of encouragement for the one in five Australians who will experience a mental health condition in any given year.

Less formally but no less importantly, countless high-profile sportspeople have eschewed the clichés and stoicism of a previous era for a more raw and honest dialogue about mental health. Those who have gone down this path often cite a motivation to reduce the stigma surrounding the issue.

For former champion swimmer Libby Trickett, who has worked as a mental health ambassador for Beyond Blue and the Queensland government, discussing her postnatal depression was akin to her decision to go public with her heartbreaking experience of miscarriage.

“My huge passion is normalising those conversations,” says the four-time Olympic gold medallist. “It’s just so important, because when you experience things such as pregnancy loss or mental illness, you feel very isolated, as though you’re the only one going through that.”

For athletes such as Thwaites, 34, there’s a sense of “paying it forward” in speaking out. “Going through the depths of depression and anxiety myself, one of the things that got me through was seeking out other athletes who had been through similar things,” she says. “I found a lot of hope and comfort in that.”

Similarly, St George Illawarra Dragons prop and veteran of 151 NRL games Dan Hunt founded the Mental Health Movement because of the toll taken by his own mental health issues. The organisation delivers workshops, training and resources on mental health to workplaces across Australia.

During his playing career the now 34-year-old was diagnosed with type 2 bipolar disorder. When his career was prematurely cut short by injury, he slid into isolation, heavy drinking and illicit drug use.

“I know what it’s like to struggle,” Hunt says. “I know what it’s like not to know anything about mental health or where to get support.”

While elite sports have become far more attuned to the non-physical dimensions of health, the relationship between sport and mental health is far from straightforward. An extensive recent survey of AIS athletes found higher levels of life satisfaction than in the wider community. Conversely, the participants were significantly more likely to report “high to very high” psychological distress and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The survey results reflect the complexity of this intersection. Athletes are, almost by definition, highly physically active – important in this context given the evidence linking exercise with improved mental health outcomes. But their profession can bring with it stressors such as intense public scrutiny, large amounts of time away from loved ones and the knowledge that a torn tendon here or a missed start there could be calamitous for their career.

Many athletes are propelled to sporting heights in part by a perfectionist nature. This personality trait is very much a double-edged sword in terms of wellbeing.

“I’d be able to remember the two shots I missed, but not the 48 shots I made in a game,” says Thwaites, a goal shooter/attack with 55 Test caps to her name. “Your focus is so fine-tuned on those things you want to make perfect.”

Libby Trickett has similarly complicated feelings about the often-obsessive mindset required of an elite athlete. “For me, personally, it created a lot of turmoil,” the 36-year-old says. “It was a major part of my personality. I don’t know that it’s the most positive personality element, but it can allow you to achieve wonderful things.”

Retirement from top-level sport can mean a loss of routine, camaraderie and structure. For Trickett, who retired in 2009 at 24, then made a comeback before retiring for good in 2013, finding a new sense of purpose wasn’t easy. “You see the sport sailing off into the distance and you’re just kind of stuck wherever you are,” she says. “It was challenging because I consider [swimming] the first love of my life. I was so passionate about it and had clear, tangible goals that I was working towards every single day.”

The exit from the bubble of elite sport can also coincide with an abrupt shift away from the gruelling but endorphin-producing physical workload. In Trickett’s case, she initially went from 35 hours a week of training to none.

Counterintuitively, the seemingly exotic life of an athlete can be their familiar space and the pressures of the sporting arena can act as a sanctuary. While doctors advised Caitlin Thwaites to quit top-level netball for mental health reasons, she felt unable to walk away. “It was the only reason I was getting out of bed and the only place where I felt valued,” she recalls. “It was a big component of how I managed to get through.”

Public success and private struggle can often be intermingled, as athletes channel unhappiness, or even trauma, into achievement.

“I had a pretty tough upbringing around domestic violence and I was taught to harden up and get on with it,” Dan Hunt explains. “As detrimental as that was to my mental health, it was probably a strength in my rugby league career because it helped me to work hard and sacrifice.”

While some elite athletes may be predisposed to mental health challenges, issues sometimes can be attributed to the nature of elite sport – not least how publicly one’s career plays out. The upside is that by using their profile, these same athletes can push mental health conversations into the mainstream and reach new audiences.

“Sport in Australia connects people,” says Hunt, who has recruited two other former footballers to his organisation. “Being an NRL player can get our foot in the door … but the key is connecting through stories and showing some vulnerability.”

The increased presence of sportspeople in the conversation can provide a powerful reminder that even those who are seemingly thriving can be impacted by mental ill-health. Thwaites was simultaneously one of the best goal shooters of her generation and a person living with anxiety and depression.

“There was many a time I was in very poor mental health, and I was able to compartmentalise. I don’t fully understand how,” she says. “For people who haven’t experienced [these conditions], I’d say not to write off people that may be doing it tough. They can often still do what they’re required, and do it at a high level.”

Such messages of hope from the new wave of athletes turned mental health advocates have won wide-ranging admiration.

Dr Sean O’Connor, director of the coaching psychology unit at the University of Sydney, says that athlete advocacy can be a valuable part of the broader framework to improve mental health outcomes.

“It’s great to bring attention to these issues, but we also need to have enough attention on the structures and support mechanisms so people have somewhere to reach out to,” he says. “Having athletes who have the public’s attention talking about the ways they have been able to work through and improve their mental health is quite beneficial. It destigmatises [mental ill-health] and gives people the opportunity to get support from others.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 27, 2021 as "Mind games".

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