Wednesday, 10 October, was World Mental Health Day 2018 and EBC marked this year’s day with an event on Mental Health in Elite Sport in the European Parliament. Hosted by the EP Sport Intergroup with group member MEP Bogdan Wenta and co-planned with Vrije Universiteit Brussels, EBC was happy to work with a number of other partners to build a strong agenda demonstrating the vital role mental health has in professional athleticism.

Thanks to support from EUAthletes, FIFPro, TeamNL, EFPA and FEPSAC, the meeting had an excellent agenda of presentations by experts and a roundtable of athletes.

The morning started with a welcome from Mr Wenta, who spoke about the work of the intergroup, his experience as both a professional handball player and coach, as well as the important role good mental health plays in competitive sports.

Prof. Paul Wylleman from VUB gave an introduction to the topic, citing the Declaration fo Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities, Article I.VII calling for the protection of mental and physical health. One elite athlete in four is confronted with mental health illness in their career, with factors such as physical ill-health (i.e. injury or over-training), stressful working conditions (competition, result-driven pressure, travel), gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle (i.e. rapid weight gain or loss, lack of sleep) and rapid social change (i.e. deselection, gaining or losing elite status, end of career) creating heavy emotional burden and situations leading to mental ill-health.

The agenda then moved to a roundtable discussion, moderated by EBC Executive Director, Frédéric Destrebecq, and featuring three professional athletes: Chris Kerr (Gaelic Footballer, Antrim Gaa & St Galls GAC), Jessie Barr (Olympian; University of Limerick) and Lisette Teunissen (Paralympian Swimmer). The discussion revolved around their own personal experiences with mental health in their careers, the support that is available (or lack there of, in some cases) in the professional world, and the stigma that continues discourage fellow athletes from seeking help.

Chris reflected on his own experiences with depression while having to maintain his professional career and remain at top performance, as well as his role as an ambassador for 2 mental health charities in Belfast and his passion in breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health. Jessie spoke of the emotional struggle an athlete can face when dealing with injury, and her personal experience as an injured athlete, as well as her current PhD work within the PE and Sport Sciences department at the University of Limerick (U.L.) in Ireland examining the stigma around mental health within an elite sport context in Ireland. Lisette spoke of her 18 year career as a paralympic swimmer, during which she won Gold in London 2012 and Bronze in Rio 2016. She praised TeamNL for their support programmes for their athletes and the importance they place on ensuring both good mental and physical health in all their athletes, and spoke of her experience as a professional paralympian and the emotions behind winning and high-level competition as an athlete in a wheelchair.

The roundtable discussion moved into two final presentations next: one from Maurits Hendriks, Games and Performance Director of TeamNL, who spoke about “The organization of mental health support
in Olympic and Paralympic sports”, highlighting the holistic support TeamNL provides its athletes 365 days a year, through high-level mental health experts providing athletes individualized high performance services, on-site support during Olympic & Paralympic games, development competences 8 years pre-podium, increasing mental health awareness and decreasing mental health illiteracy, career support (during and at end-of-career period) and continued research into athlete and coach mental health in order to continue improving services.

Prof. Peter Falkai of Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich gave a presentation on “Using resilience to build mental health in elite athletes and coaches”, during which he explained the science behind resilience and what is currently taking place in the brain as the athlete is building or feeding off their resilience. He shared that there is a possibility for athletes to “build their resilience”: advised to be proactive in their sporting development, sensitive to different types of motivation, build confidence from multiple sources rather than focusing on one particular source, focus on what
they can control and on processes, and take specific steps to obtain the support that they need.

MEP Bogdan Wenta interjected here to reflect on all that had been said so far, emphasizing how important of an occasion this was to continue raising awareness of the need for mental health support in athletes and coaches and for more to be done. “We only talk about the winners,” he said, “but sometimes we forget- we are all winners, yes, but we need to address the losses, too. Address the ones left behind that may not be sure how to handle the next steps.”

Prof. Paul Wylleman closed the meeting with a strong set of recommendations:

1. Ensure protection of mental health of athletes (IOC, 2018) as well as of coaches, experts and staff
2. Develop initiatives to enhance mental awareness and decrease mental health illiteracy in elite sport
3. Ensure structured, continued, high-quality and highly accessible services by mental health professionals with expertise in elite sport
4. Establish collaboration between stakeholders in elite sport
5. The European parliament could advise to: establish an international working group in order to formulate guidelines for the Member States on mental health in elite sport (cfr. guidelines on dual career), fund European research on mental health in elite sport and the development of tools to increase mental health awareness in elite sport promote and enable collaboration between elite sport organisations, psychology/psychiatry organisations and academic centres of excellence in order to develop and conduct Europe-wide initiatives on mental health for athletes, coaches,
technical directors and mental health experts.

See full recommendations & details HERE