Tackling the Stigma: Mental Health in Men’s Sport
We often assume that the greatest sportsmen are the strongest humans, defying expectations of what our bodies are physically capable of, and exemplifying the epitome of modern ‘masculinity’ with their grit and determination - but what about their mental strength?
Approximately 1 in 4 people in the United Kingdom will experience a mental health problem each year, and research has found that men are significantly more likely to be reluctant to seek support for their mental health or to disclose mental health problems to loved ones. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, we’re taking a look at three of the world’s finest sportsmen who are paving the way for conversations about men’s mental health, as well as helping to dismantle the stigma that suffering is a weakness.
With a total of 28 Olympic medals from his competitive swimming career, including winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games alone, Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time. He continues to hold the world record in the men’s 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, and 400m individual medley, and also won 82 medals in other major international competitions during his illustrious career.
Despite his unprecedented success as an athlete, Phelps has spoken openly since his retirement (2016) about his struggles both with ADHD and severe depression. The 33-year-old candidly discusses his battle with depression and how therapy saved his life, crediting counseling with giving him insight into his feelings and tools to manage his depression. He wants to encourage others, particularly young men, to talk with one another about their experiences.
In recent years Phelps has turned his attention to supporting those living with a mental illness, joining the board of Medibio, a company focused on diagnosis of Mental Health disorders, and partnering with Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy company that connects users with therapists. His Michael Phelps Foundation also now offers stress management programs for swimmers.
‘For me, that’s way bigger than ever winning gold medals. The chance to potentially save a life, to give that person an opportunity to grow and learn and help someone else, there’s nothing better in life’
Since turning professional in 2005, Andy Murray has won three Grand Slam tournaments and three Olympic medals, helped Great Britain to win the Davis Cup, and became world #1 in 2016. He is the first British man to win multiple Wimbledon singles titles since Fred Pretty in 1936, and is the only tennis player, male or female, to have won two Olympic singles titles.
As well as writing himself into the history books and making headlines on the court, Murray has been active in changing perceptions about masculinity; the Scot has long been an outspoken activist for mental health awareness within and outside of sport, noting that an openness about emotions and mental struggles is a necessity. Working with Building Modern Men, Murray has helped to draw out into the open issues in the realms of mental health and suicide among men.
Following his loss to Roger Federer in the 2012 Wimbledon final, Murray burst into tears on court, and he notes that people looked at him not as weak, but as honest and forthcoming;
‘People didn’t laugh or think less of me, it was the opposite. It felt like they respected me more. They respected me for letting off the pressure cooker of emotion and for letting the mask slip’
He has continued to express his emotions publicly, most recently crying after finishing a match at 3am at the Citi Open, and then giving a highly emotional press conference at the 2019 Australian Open regarding his injuries and potentially impending retirement. Murray has been commended for showing that ‘if he, a world class athlete, could weep where people could see him’ then it’s okay for other men too; crying and modern masculinity are compatible.
Danny Rose is no stranger to success, assisting England’s FIFA World Cup squad to the semi-finals last year and helping guide Tottenham Hotspur to the Champions League final earlier this month. The 28-year-old also played for England at the under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels, before being named in the senior squad for the first time in 2014.
In June 2018 Rose stated that he had been diagnosed with depression, triggered by a combination of injury and family tragedy. Speaking out just a week before playing in the national squad at the FIFA World Cup, Rose’s open description of his mental health issues was described as a ‘game changer’, grasping the media’s attention and acting as the catalyst for a wider conversation about mental health within football.
The number of footballers seeking mental health help is now in record numbers, but the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) are confident that this reflects a growing trust in the system, with players feeling increasingly comfortable to speak about their emotions. Rose’s decision to speak up has also helped to encourage the FA’s partnership with Heads Together to launch ‘Heads Up’, a campaign ‘using the power of football to change the game on mental health’.
If you have been impacted by any of the issues raised in this article then you can read more about mental health problems and find support resources here.