Sikhumbuzo Moyo, Senior Sports Reporter
BRITISH table tennis player Emma Vickers wrote an article titled ‘The Stigma of Mental Health’ that when an athlete experiences physical injury, there is often a team of medical personnel, which includes doctors, trainers and physiotherapists, employed to ensure a speedy recovery.
However, when an athlete experiences a mental health issue, the treatment process is often not quite as similar.
Mental illness in sport is often overlooked and an athlete may be left with feelings of loneliness and abandonment, unsure of where to turn.
“Many assume that mental health issues in athletes are rare, as they are often perceived to be extremely physically healthy individuals. Top elite athletes are idolised within the media, often subjected to a large fan base, potentially giving the perception that they are immune to such problems.
“Athletes often do not seek help from mental health services or fail to fully participate once they have begun. One of the reasons for this disconnect is stigma, namely, to avoid the label of mental illness and the harm that this often brings, for example, the potential diminishing of self-esteem (Corrigan, 2004). Mental health stigma is still an ongoing issue in society; however, this may be heightened even more in athletes who may fear the loss of their role model status,” writes Vickers in an article published on believeperform.com recently.
Many sportspersons, including Zimbabweans, are victims of mental health illnesses, but have suffered silently with the world not knowing, largely because mental health illness has not yet been accepted as an injury.
The challenge with this kind of injury is that it can be catastrophic, not only to the affected individual, but to the team, the brand and even the country represented. Unlike conventional injuries which can be detected by an untrained medical eye, mental health is not.
Some athletes choose to keep quiet instead of talking about it and seeking help, as a result of stigma.
Simone Biles, considered one of the greatest gymnasts, pulled out of the ongoing Olympic Games final and revealed that she took the unexpected decision due to mental health problems she had.
He decision to pull out and talk about it received praise from the Minister of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation and celebrated Olympian Kirsty Coventry.
“She made an incredible decision and there will be so many positive things for so many athletes that may or may not be in the same situation that are going to look up to her. She is inspiring them to accept that this is normal that everyone goes through, obviously in different stages. She has allowed people to accept it and I think that took a lot of bravery,” Minister Coventry told CNN in an interview.
The question now is what apparatus does Zimbabwe have in place to deal with mental health problems for athletes?
Are the athletes themselves strong enough to talk about mental health? We have seen some unexpected performances by many of our sportspersons despite exhibiting no physical injuries, and maybe some could be due mental health?
It is probably time to accept that mental health is a form of injury for our sportspersons and everyone must be encouraged to freely talk about it and seek immediate help without fear of stigma.
Our sportspersons face a lot of challenges, which might distract them from optimum performances and it’s an area that as a country we have to accept.
Now that Minister Coventry has come out praising Bile for speaking out, hopefully a concrete policy to deal with the mental health of athletes can be crafted to help them perform without the added pressure of stigmatisation.