Some of Australia’s best athletes are speaking out to break stigma and raise awareness about mental health.
Lifeline and the Australian Institute of Sport’s Community Custodians program aims to increase suicide prevention awareness and encourage people to reach out for help.
The program involves athletes sharing their own mental health stories.
Australian Olympic judo athlete Nathan Katz is one athlete involved in the program.
He said he thought there was still stigma surrounding weakness in elite sport.
“As an athlete you’re trained to push through all obstacles, not to complain or show weakness,” he said.
“Of, course mental health and illness is not a weakness but many athletes are scared of being perceived as mentally weak or fragile and the potential consequences.”
University of Melbourne McKenzie post doctoral research fellow Courtney Walton said: “While mental health problems are unfortunately still stigmatised in many areas of society, this is potentially accentuated in high performance environments like elite sport.
“This can lead to athletes masking mental health problems leading to less ability to recover.
“One of my main concerns for athletes experiencing mental ill-health is that they do not feel comfortable expressing what they are going through, and seeking help.”
National Amateur Body Building Association state champion in 2015 and 2018, and 2018 International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness overall champion Nathan Farley said men did not talk about mental health in bodybuilding because they did not want to burden others.
“It’s not that it’s a taboo topic. I’ve just found, in my experience, that guys don’t talk about that sort of thing with just anyone,” he said.
Along with stigma, athletes can struggle to separate sport from their personal lives.
Western Australian Institute of Sport psychologist Sharon Ridley said it could be challenging for athletes to perform consistently while balancing life’s hurdles.
“They control as many facets as they possibly can, but sometimes life will throw you a curveball that you can’t control,” she said.
Katz said balancing his judo career with life outside of sport was crucial.
“Separating ‘Nathan Katz’ the athlete or Olympic judoka and the human being is really important especially when you may be out of form or going through a difficult period,” he said.
Farley said while preparing for competition, separating sporting and normal life was difficult.
“The lead-up to a big show is stressful, to the point where nothing else in life really matters,” he said.
“You become very anti-social.”
Dr Walton said pressure and stress could affect an elite athlete’s mental health.
“High pressure to perform, harmful perfectionistic tendencies, injury and retirement, potential for abuse and maltreatment, interpersonal conflict, overtraining/commitment and burnout, and a consuming athletic identity with less focus on other aspects of one’s life,” he said.
Ms Ridley said WAIS worked hard to help athletes cope with the challenges of high-level competition.
“It is important that, as much as the athlete wants to succeed, they have a life (study, work, friends) outside of their sport,” she said.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported death by suicide rose from 2922 in 2014, to 3318 in 2019.
It also reported suicide as the 13th leading cause of death in Australia, accounting for more than one third of deaths in people aged 15-24.
Lifeline reported that eight Australians die every day from suicide and 75 per cent of those are male. The Lifeline Community Custodians Program runs until March 2021.