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‘It’s hard to appreciate what their world is like’: Are mental health issues a sporting epidemic?


For many of us, the prospect of playing the sport we love professionally is akin to living the dream.

But the stresses and strains of life as a professional athlete, with the spotlight of scrutiny shining incandescently, is causing a growing number of young stars to abandon their dreams as they battle with mental health issues.

Some players have stepped away from the game temporarily, while others have been forced into early retirement.

Mental Health problems join a growing list of serious issues which have the potential to derail an athletes career, in addition to threats associated with alcohol, substance abuse, and problem gambling.

“Unless you’ve been really closely involved in professional sport it is hard to appreciate what their world is like,” Sports Psychologist Lana McLaughlin tells Mark Levy and Mark Riddell on Macquarie Sports Radio.

“For footballers, the season is very long, it’s very tiring, it’s can be all-consuming. It’s not a regular workplace, it’s a really unique context and the pressures are unique to that particular environment,

“Selection and non-selection stresses, injury, concern about contracts, career development, they’re unique to the sporting context.”

It’s one thing for athletes to deal with the stresses arising from the threat of a career ending injury or the risk of being traded or dropped. Additionally, modern professional sports stars must also contend with the brutal reality of their careers being endlessly analysed on social media.

“Five years or more ago, the research suggested that athletes didn’t experience any more mental health issues than the general population, whereas the research from 2015 onwards would suggest that athletes do report high levels of mental health [issues] than the general population,

“I don’t know that anyone at the moment can link social media to that or not, but I don’t know how realistic it is to say get rid of social media either, it’s part of everyone’s world now,

“I think there needs to be more research done,” Ms McLaughlin said.

For AFL star Tom Boyd, his mental health issues forced him into retirement at the age of 23. Gold Coast Titans halfback Ash Taylor had step away from the club momentarily, reconnecting with his family by heading underground to mine for opals.

Is time away from the game necessary for athletes dealing with a mental health issue to decompress?

“Every client you see is completely different, because every brain is completely different, the context is always very unique and therefore the response has to be unique and it has to work with that player, their social and family circumstance, their career and club circumstance, I don’t think there’s a one size fits all approach,

“The key is identifying early, when there are milder, sub-clinical issues before they become a mental illness, that would be helpful because you could get on top of things earlier and the treatment would have great outcomes.”

Click PLAY to hear more from Lana McLaughlin: