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Mental illness and poor mental health common among people who play sport, exercise or work in the sport and physical activity sector

In the first ever nationwide survey of its kind, academics at Edge Hill University, in partnership with DOCIAsport, have announced today (15 April) that mental illness and poor mental health are commonly experienced by people who play sport, exercise or who work in the UK sport and physical activity sector.

Responses from over 1200 men and women (aged 16 and above) involved in over 50 sports and activities from grassroots to professional level reveal that 57% of respondents had ever experienced a mental illness, with women (64%) being more likely to report this than males (51%).

Of those who had experienced mental illness, 40% currently did so (41% of females and 40% males). Significantly 70% of young women aged 16 to 24 said they had experienced mental illness with over half (54%) currently doing so. Men were more likely to currently experience mental illness from the age of 35.

Overall, approximately 1 in 4 respondents currently experience mental illness and one-third said they also knew of others who currently did so.

Anxiety, depression, panic disorders, self-harm, PTSD and OCD were the most commonly reported illnesses for men and women, with men also reporting conditions such as substance use disorders (including alcohol) and women anorexia and bulimia.

Those playing or working in grassroots sport were more likely to currently experience mental illness (45%) compared with those in education (41%), in the activity/lifestyle/recreation sector (38%) and high-performance sport (37%).

Experience of mental illness at some point in life was highest in hockey (79%), followed by climbing/mountaineering (78%), exercise and fitness (69%), cycling (64%), running (61%), triathlon (60%), rugby union (59%), swimming (56%), athletics (55%), golf (54%), multi-sports and rugby league (both 52%), football (52%) and netball (50%).

Current mental illness was most common in cricket (60%) followed by climbing/mountaineering (57%), rugby league (55%), multi-sports (46%), exercise/fitness (43%), rugby union (41%), football (40%), swimming (39%), cycling (38%), athletics and triathlon (both 33%), golf (32%), running (27%), netball (22%) and hockey (20%).

Over one-half of coaches (55%) and athletes/players (57%) had experienced mental illness, while 44% and 39%, respectively, currently did so. Volunteers also reported high levels of lifetime mental illness (64%), with 47% currently experiencing mental illness.

Other workers who were most likely to report experiencing mental illness included those directly involved in the provision of sport and physical activity, such as programme deliverers (82%), sports therapists (65%) and sport development officers (58%).

Life-time mental illness was also reported by over one-half of respondents in managerial and administrative roles, including chairperson (69%), administration/secretary (56%), programme manager/director (55%), commercial/marketing (53%), and chief executive officer and manager (both 52%).

When asked whether people in the same position as them would disclose experiences of mental illness to others in their organisation, just 10% of respondents felt it was likely or very likely that they would, while approximately six-in-ten (58%) said that it would be unlikely or very unlikely that this would happen.

There was mixed evidence of how mental health and illness were perceived and treated in the workplace. Some respondents commented on the stigma attached to mental illness, explaining that it was seen as ‘weak’ and expressed their fear of being judged as inadequate. Others said how they had received valuable support from friends, colleagues and workplaces and that mental health was taken seriously.

Consequently, 57% of respondents said they preferred to receive mental health support from someone outside of their organisation/workplace; one-quarter (25%) wanted to receive support from someone inside and outside their organisation; and just 5% preferred to receive mental health support from someone inside their organisation.

A former footballer who experienced a range of mental illnesses including anxiety, depression and substance use disorder and is now a coach, said: “I was released from a professional contract at 19 years old and struggled for many years with my identity. I often identified myself as a failed footballer and couldn’t see a future. Living like this led to issues with alcohol and gambling. I graduated from university but didn’t see this as a success. For many years I felt I didn’t want to carry on with my life, but I carried on, surviving … I then reached out [for support] … I feel this support has helped me to come to terms with my own life … I now feel proud of what I do now and see a future for myself.”

Great Britain Paralympian, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, has supported the survey after she chaired the government’s Duty of Care in Sport Review in 2017. She said: “I was delighted that Edge Hill University and Ian Braid were able to contribute to the Duty of Care in Sport Review and have carried on the spirit of the review with this national survey into the mental health of people involved in sport and physical activity.

“Mental health within the sector was a vitally important part of the terms of reference of the review, and these findings show that mental illness can affect people across all sports and activities regardless of their role or status. It also shows how variable practice, organisational leadership and support for mental health is in this area.

“While much has been done to raise awareness of mental health within the sport and physical activity community over the last few years, the survey responses show there is still much more that can be done to better support people playing, exercising or working in the UK sport and physical activity sector.

“I hope this important research can be used to inform future policy and practice in the sector and help implement the recommendations of the Duty of Care in Sport Review.”

Professor Andy Smith, Professor of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University, who led the research, said: “We’re pleased to announce the findings of the first ever survey of its kind into the mental health of people who play sport, exercise or who work in the sport and physical activity sector.

“While we know that being physically active can have a positive impact on mental health, these results show that mental illness is common across all levels of sport and physical activity and is a particularly significant public health challenge at grassroots and community level. We hope our findings will bring about important cultural change in the sector so that mental health becomes the responsibility of everyone and is taken more seriously.”

Ian Braid, Managing Director, DOCIAsport, said: ‘“When I was burnt out and signed off work at the British Athletes Commission I told a number of people in sport that I was mentally ill and the response surprised me. People opened up to me about their own wellbeing challenges and talked about others they knew who were suffering, usually in silence. Then, no one really knew the scale of mental health need in the sport and physical activity sector, yet it was one of the biggest challenges people encounter.

“I was delighted therefore to collaborate with Professor Andy Smith and the rest of the Edge Hill team, on the first ever nationwide survey into the mental health of the sport and physical activity workforce. The results announced today show that there is work to be done within the sector at all levels, and in all roles, if it is to maximise its contribution to the wellbeing of all workers and society more broadly.”

James Allen, Director of Policy, Governance and External Affairs, Sport and Recreation Alliance, said: “I’m really proud to be launching this ground breaking work today into the mental health of the sport and recreation sector workforce. I’m delighted to have been given the opportunity by Edge Hill University and DOCIAsport to contribute and my hope now is that the many key findings are acted upon.

“Since first launching the Alliance’s mental health work in 2015 with the publication of the Mental Health Charter, I’ve been hugely heartened by the breadth of interest in mental health across the sector. I see this research as vital to the next stage – building on excellent work to date to bring greater depth to our collective understanding of the challenges faced by the workforce. I also hope that this research drives further interest in the fantastic resources already out there.”

For more information on the survey and its results please visit www.edgehill.ac.uk/sport/research/spawmh/survey-results

If you have, or are currently affected by mental illness and would like to speak to someone please phone the Samaritans freephone number 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org  To find out about mental health advice and support in your area please visit hubofhope.co.uk

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