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Mental health education programme aims to support every athlete and promote positive mental health

The English Institute of Sport (EIS) and UK Sport have announced a programme of mental health education to support athletes and promote positive mental health across the UK’s high performance system.

The education programme will be delivered to all 43 UK Sport funded sports and aims to reach all 1,200 athletes on world class programmes.

More than 20 workshops have already been delivered as part of the education programme which also aims to promote positive mental health amongst coaches and support staff and encourage them to develop self-care strategies in the run-up to Tokyo 2020.

The announcement coincides with the start of Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May 2019) and follows the recent establishment of an Expert Panel to support the provision of mental health services to elite athletes.

The Expert Panel is made-up of specialist clinical psychologists and sports psychiatrists who provide advice on complex, challenging cases and are able to call-upon specialists with niche expertise to guide the treatment of particular conditions.

Since it was established in the latter part of 2018, the Expert Panel has provided advice and guidance to a number of sports on the management of complex cases involving athletes and employees in the high performance system.

The education programme and the work of the Expert Panel have been welcomed by athletes, coaches and the Minister for Sport.

The Minister for Sport, Mims Davies MP, said: “Our mental health is as important as our physical health and this new programme is a really important step to ensure our elite athletes, who are in peak physical condition, are supported to look after their mental health too. I’m pleased to see this being made a priority by UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport.”

Five-time Paralympic gold medallist in wheelchair racing, Hannah Cockroft said:  “As an athlete is so important to look after your mental health and take care of it in the same way that you manage your physical health.  We are very fortunate to have a lot of support around us, so I know that if I have a problem there are a lot of people that I can go to, whether it is the performance lifestyle advisor, the psychologist, my coach or the head coach.  It means we can address any issues or concerns I have and ensure I look after my mental health in a way that benefits me as an athlete and as a person.”

Ali Jawad, who won a Powerlifting silver medal for Paralympics GB at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games said: “In my experience as an athlete, mental and physical health have a massive impact on each other.  It is not possible to perform at your best if you are not feeling well in yourself, so it is important that all athletes look to optimise their positive mental health and work in a training environment that recognises them as individuals and supports both their wellbeing as a person as well as their performance requirements as an athlete.

“The high performance system has made good progress in this area in recent years and the increased levels of support and education now provided to athletes on mental health is a positive signal that elite sport increasingly recognises the vital importance of wellbeing as both an end in itself and for the positive impact it can have on performance.”

David McNulty, National Lead Coach (Bath), who participated in the recent workshop with British Swimming explained: “Mental health is an important issue so it is extremely helpful that sports across the high performance system have access to this expertise and best practice which enables them to develop their own measures for promoting positive mental health and also allows them to get help and specialist assistance to support any of their athletes that are facing difficulties.

“The education workshop was a very positive experience and has helped us, as a group of coaches, support staff and athletes, to talk more openly about mental health and for us to understand we all have mental health. This benefits everyone on a personal level and in relation to their role on the world class programme.”

The Chair of UK Sport, Dame Katherine Grainger added: “High performance sport is a world which can place unique demands upon people.  It’s essential we all do as much as we can to support athletes, coaches and support staff, helping to create an environment that promotes and facilitates positive mental health.

Mental health matters to everyone and from my own experience I’m aware that as an athlete your overwhelming goal is to be the best athlete you can possibly be and to do that you must be able to develop as a person and be happy and supported in that world. It is important to have structures in place to encourage people’s personal development as well as their personal progress.”

The implementation of the education programme is being overseen by Head of Mental Health, Dr James Bell, and Mental Health Manager, Sam Cumming, who work in conjunction with the medical and sports science staff that work with sports on a day-to-day basis.

The programme has been designed to reflect the unique challenges of working in high performance sport.  It provides information on the range of support available to athletes and advice on ways to promote positive mental health amongst all athletes and employees.

Dr James Bell explained: “The importance of mental health is now much more widely recognised in elite sport, yet much of the conversation about it still tends to focus on mental health as an issue or a problem.  These new measures are designed to encourage sports and athletes to talk more openly about the subject and to also consider the importance of positive mental health in their everyday life as well as their sporting life.”

“Mental health is as important as physical health, so in the same way that athletes take steps to optimise their physical health and prevent injuries and illnesses, we are also trying to encourage them to think about ways in which they can maximise their mental health.

“The education programme encourages athletes to consider factors that influence their mental health and think about strategies to promote positive mental health in an elite sport environment. This applies not just to athletes but also for the coaches and support staff that work incredibly hard to support them.”

The programme of mental health education is available to all funded sports in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and will be delivered through a series of workshops, in conjunction with applied psychologists from Changing Minds UK.

Workshops have already been delivered to over 300 athletes, coaches and support staff in a range of sports including: Swimming, Paralympic Swimming, Triathlon, Sailing, Rowing, Cycling, Paralympic Cycling and Netball.

The workshops share best practice developed by EIS Psychologists and Performance Lifestyle Advisors on ways that coaches and Performance Directors can promote and facilitate positive mental health on their programmes and provide advice and guidance on techniques and strategies to enable people to maximise their wellbeing.

Psychologists and Performance Lifestyle Advisors that work with the sports on a day-today basis have inputted into the development of a number of the workshops to ensure they reflect the individual characteristics of the sport.

Factors that are widely acknowledged to be important elements in promoting positive mental health are:

  • A performance environment that considers the whole person and aims to develop athletes as people and not solely as performers
  • A working environment which promotes informed choice and autonomy
  • Encouraging connections with people inside and outside of elite sport
  • A culture that prioritises mental recovery in the physical training environment

Bell added: “This work aims to share both clinical advice on positive mental health and some of the best practice that sports and our colleagues at the other Home Country Sport Institutes are already doing in this area.

“Lots of sports are already doing excellent work in this area and a key aim of the education workshops is to share this more widely across the whole high performance system and encourage all sports to develop specific strategies to promote positive mental health amongst their athletes, coaches and staff.”

The education programme and the work of the Expert Panel are part of the Mental Health Strategy for the High Performance System, which was published in October 2018.

It aims to facilitate a positive mental health environment across the UK’s high performance system based on four key pillars: Communication; Education; Provision; Assurance.

The strategy is overseen by the Mental Health Steering Group which was established in 2017.  The Group meets four times per year and is made-up of medical and mental health professionals, representatives from sport national governing bodies, UK Sport, EIS and experts from the mental health charity, MIND.

Dr James Bell was appointed the EIS’s Head of Mental Health in December 2018 alongside his existing duties as Head of Culture at UK Sport. He oversees the delivery of the mental health strategy including the implementation of the education programme.  Bell works with the EIS’s Mental Health Manager, Sam Cumming, who works in conjunction with the medical and sports science staff that support athletes on world class programmes on a day-to-day basis.

Further details on the range of support provided to athletes and the work of UK Sport and the EIS in mental health is available at https://www.eis2win.co.uk/resources/.

For further information on UK Sport, please contact the Press Office on 0207 211 5120 or Lee Murgatroyd, lee.murgatroyd@pointcommunications.co, 07974 161 166 or Jessica Whitehorn, Head of Communications, UK Sport, Jessica.whitehorn@uksport.gov.uk, 07747 562532