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EIS Chair John Steele on ‘understanding what it takes to create and sustain positive mental health’

By John Steele | 07/05/2019

After creating unprecedented success, sports leaders in the high performance system have been hit with a variety of challenges over the past decade, including understanding and evolving an ever changing culture. None of these challenges have been more important or thrown up as many potential questions as the ongoing impact of mental health.

Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May 2019), it is timely to reflect on mental health, its significance to the UK High Performance System, and the opportunities for both individuals and the system. Speaking from my position as Chair of the English Institute of Sport (EIS), I have seen first-hand the incredible work that practitioners have been doing in this area; from the hours spent researching best practice support both within and outside of sport, to the considerable time spent building a comprehensive support and care package.

I am proud to say that the EIS is a world-leading organisation in many aspects of what we do, and the provisions UK Sport and the EIS are putting in place with sports surrounding athletes and their mental health demonstrate this well.

So what is the reality of the situation? Is there a growing epidemic of mental illness or just more openness and recognition of its existence? Athletes are speaking more openly. This highlights to us where the system has been failing in the past, and indeed, where we have delivered successful intervention. The 2017 UK Sport Culture Health Check found that 24% of Olympic and Paralympic athletes were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the measures taken in their sport to optimise the mental health of their performance programmes. This was a clear alarm bell which has resulted in a new mental health partnership to tackle a growing need for intervention and support, led by UK Sport and the EIS.

In 2018, the EIS created a dedicated Mental Health Team, including an experienced expert panel and the creation of two specialist roles (Head of Mental Health and Mental Health Manager) to support world class programmes. It takes time to develop meaningful impact, but the system is evolving, and we are beginning to see the benefits of additional support being in place. Those operating in elite sport now have a better knowledge of available support and the structures in place to quickly identify and assist people where required.

The EIS Mental Health team work with Olympic and Paralympic sports, many of whom have a psychologist, doctor and Performance Lifestyle Advisor from the EIS embedded within their team. Performance Lifestyle advisors talk regularly to athletes about how they can develop as people, advisors are often the first to hear of any difficulties that an individual might be facing.

Our Mental Health provision has been enhanced by an additional expert panel offering guidance and advice around complex mental health cases, alongside an existing external athlete referral network. The network provides care services by experts within sport and trusted partners outside of sport. Undoubtedly athletes will still seek help, but with added provision and checks in place, the system is more robust and agile.

The aim of the Mental Health Strategy is to promote a sustainable environment where all people have the best opportunity to enjoy positive mental health. This means every person realising their potential, being able to cope with the stresses of life, being able to perform productively and making a contribution to their community. It emphasises an approach that promotes positive mental health, provides education and looks to reduce the risk of mental health problems developing, alongside an early intervention approach to managing problems as they arise. An example of early prevention would be mental health screening programmes for athletes, from induction until they leave their programme.

Whether there’s a stigma still attached to admitting or asking for mental health help in elite sport is a difficult question. From what I can see in the UK, attitudes are changing. As a High Performance System we are all becoming more aware and committed to dealing with issues as early as possible.

Traditionally sport did not talk about mental health. It was somehow linked to poor mental toughness or lack of resilience. Thankfully that’s changing, but it takes time and we should be vigilant of residual behaviours born of old attitudes. I see and hear people from all walks of our society, talking more freely about their mental health now. That openness encourages others to do the same, and now they may seek help or be more aware of a situation surfacing with a colleague, friend or family member.

Athletes speaking openly about mental health is powerful. England footballer Danny Rose speaking out prior to the 2018 World Cup showed huge courage. It will have resonated with many of us that there will be times when we need help and that’s its perfectly acceptable to talk about it, even in elite sport. For all of the sporting world it is essential to ensure that everyone involved is supported in enjoying positive mental health and feels equipped to handle all the experiences that sport and life bring them, both good and bad.

With MIND stating that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year, and NHS Digital reporting that mental health problems have been on the rise since the 1990s, it seems that sport reflects society and vice versa. That is why we have looked to create partnerships outside sport to ensure we are learning from, and in some instances helping with, a broader societal challenge. At the EIS, we have been working with MIND on staff education and training to ensure people are prepared, and that staff know how to look after not only athletes but also themselves.

Practitioners, coaches, managers, volunteers and leaders are all susceptible to the increasing stresses and anxieties of a society that is constantly demanding more for less. Now is the time to ensure that we all understand what it takes to create and sustain positive mental health.