By any score, it’s been a tragic week for Australian sport.
Two young Australians have died in the aftermath of their athletic careers: 20-year-old Olympic figure skater Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya and 38-year-old former Richmond AFL footballer Shane Tuck.
- Experts says some athletes can be more susceptible to mental health issues than the general public
- Mental health professionals say the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has added to stress for athletes, particularly in Victoria
- There are calls for clubs and governing bodies in all sports to add mental health services to their high-performance mix
We don’t know what happened and we can’t assume. There are no easy answers.
It’s just unspeakably sad.
But their deaths have highlighted yet again that athletes are no different to anyone who suffers from mental health problems.
Experts say that in some ways they can be more susceptible, as they leave a rigidly structured career for the chaos of “real life”.
And in the case of Shane Tuck, we still have some way to go to allow tough Australian men to be vulnerable.
“He kept it all in”, he said.
“He was a big, strong kid and he just had a few issues and he couldn’t get rid of them and that was the only way out.
“A lot of men think they’re all right and they’re actually not, and the best help they can get is telling people actually how bad they are, and not saying, ‘I’m all right, I’m all right’.”
Helping athletes navigate that transition has become the life work of Irish Olympic rower Gearoid Towey, who now heads the organisation Crossing the Line.
“Before, the narrative was that there isn’t enough support, but I don’t think that can be said anymore — there’s an awful lot of support out there now,” said Towey.
Performance psychologist Caroline Anderson is one of the mental health professionals administering that help.
She counsels many sportspeople, including former AFL footballers, and agrees it can be tough for them to seek help.
“They’re used to being highly successful, well-known athletes in the media spotlight, incredibly driven,” Anderson said.
“There is a lot on offer now, but it doesn’t mean that an individual, if they’re really severely suffering from a mental health condition, they may not have the insight or the ability … to ask for help,” she said.
Towey believes some athletes seek to suppress mental health issues through their dedication to training.
“But when sport stops, that self-medication also stops.”
Pandemic uncertainty adds stress to the mix
Throw into this mix the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s a recipe for trouble.
“More and more issues have shown up and the uncertainty and the constantly-changing environment has definitely had its impacts this time around, particularly with Victorian athletes that I’m working with.
“These are highly successful, highly driven people — but then coronavirus comes along and that’s taken away and they’re not used to sitting at home going ‘hmm, maybe I should do some knitting’.”
Towey says sporting clubs and governing bodies need to start thinking about including mental health services as part of their high-performance mix.
“It should play the same role as physiotherapy, physiology — all those things that they spend so much money on,” said Towey.
“It’s just common sense that someone who is happier in themselves is going to perform better.”
And it’s hoped the support athletes receive while they’re competing will also equip them to deal with the pressures of everyday life, once their careers are over.
“It’s all about repackaging them and making sure their skills as sportspeople are useful in the outside world,” said Towey.
“They’re moving into a more challenging world now.”