Big Footy – 21.09.16
Posted on March 10th, 2017
This article originally appeared on the Big Footy website on September 21, 2016.
Four Things Not to Say to a Sportsperson Going Through Mental Illness
Athletes are often depicted as strong characters in society, positioned as champions, winners and are idolised by fans – so what if a sportsperson, whether at a local club or at a professional level, were to admit that they were struggling with a mental health issue?
Former AFL player Lance Picioane and Founder of Mental Health Foundation Love Me Love You, knows all too well about the stigma associated with mental illness and athletes, having suffered himself throughout his sporting career.
“The stigma associated with sportspeople is that if they show a sign of weakness, it could be detrimental to one’s performance,” said Lance.
Matti Clements, Director and Senior Psychologist at Mental Edge Consulting, said she sees first-hand sportspeople suffering further from mental illness due to their status as an athlete.
“People think that if you’re mentally tough then you can’t be experiencing depression or anxiety, but they are not related; mental health issues do not discriminate against age, gender, ethnicity or sporting abilities,” she said.
Matti urges people to start a conversation with those around them but said that people can often say the wrong thing if someone were to open up to them.
“If someone were to say the wrong thing, they don’t say it with the wrong intent or maliciously – they say it because they are nervous and they don’t know what to say,” she said.
Here are four things not to say to a sportsperson if they admit that they are struggling.
1. “You’ll be right, you’ll get over it.”
Mental health issues cannot be dismissed and are not something that people can simply ‘get over’. Telling someone to ‘get over it’ will only make him or her feel worse, as they will feel like they can’t push through without support.
“Saying ‘get over it’ is not useful because at that point in time, the person doesn’t feel that they will get over it and it’s permissive of how that person’s feeling,” said Matti.
If someone opens up to you, Lance said it’s important to remember that you’re there to listen to them and talk with them, not talk at them.
2. Pressuring elite athletes into telling their personal story
While someone’s status in society or a sports team can prove to be a powerful tool in putting the spotlight on particular issues, Matti said people should never be pressured or asked to tell their story publicly.
“I don’t condone people pressuring elite athletes into telling their personal story, as it’s up to that individual to tell their own story – It’s nobody else’s duty to tell it for them, no matter the social benefit it may have.”
3. “But you get paid a lot, what do you have to be upset about?”
“The second stigma is often tied to money and professional athletes, with people asking ‘what do they have to be upset about?’ But money and mental health issues are also not related,” said Matti.
“Just because someone is doing a job they love, whether it’s sport or not, and are getting paid for it, it doesn’t make them immune to experiencing a mental health issue.”
4. “Showing signs of weakness will affect the team”
People assume that athletes only need time off for physical injury and are immune to hardships such as anxiety and depression.
“The whole thing around sportspeople is that showing a sign of weakness can be detrimental to one’s performance, especially in a team aspect,” said Lance.
“But even in individual athletes, they take all the pressures and burden on themselves and we’re seeing more and more athletes going through these challenges.
“The most important thing is to have that ability to have a conversation with yourself and to be able to say – ok, well something isn’t right here, what am I going to do about it?” he said.
Matti Clements is a guest speaker at Love Me Love You’s 2016 Mental Health Breakfast on October 14. For more information please visit www.lovemeloveyou.org.au