Mental Health & Sport

By Alex Cape

Sport and mental health seems a good first topic to blog about. In recent years we have seen more sportsmen and women come to the fore to say that they have suffered some form of mental illness at some time or another. Sport can be a catalyst for positive and negative influences in a person’s mental health, but I would prefer to speak of the positives. (Apologies if it becomes a bit incoherent – it is my first go at publishing a blog!)

As someone who is keen on sports and an amateur rugby player, sport has been a big influence on my mental wellbeing – something I have been very open about over the past nine months or so. I could recite pages of scientific explanations as to what sport does to the brain and the chemicals that it releases but I would prefer to look at other aspects, as there have been times when I have been depressed because I have not physically been able to train or play and yet rugby still had a positive influence for me.

Firstly, role models. The Rugby Players’ Association has recently released a campaign called Lift The Weight, which focuses on mental health. This has been a long time coming, with high profile players like Duncan Bell, Gareth Thomas and the referee Nigel Owens having spoken about their issues in the past. It is not only rugby stars who have opened up about their mental health issues, but also Freddie Flintoff, Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick (all cricket), The Rock (WWE), Ricky Hatton (boxing), and Paul Gascoigne, Stan Collymore, Gary Speed and Robert Enke (all football).

It just goes to show that no matter how much we rate these people as heroes and superstars they still suffer the same issues as we that look up to them. Sadly some of these stars never got the help that is needed in these situations and are no longer with us, which is the ultimate tragedy of mental health.

Recently a particular video came out in the Lift the Weight campaign by Jono Kitto, who plays for the team I support, Leicester Tigers. Hearing him talk about his own issues as someone I look up to, it gave me the fight to want to get back to my rugby club and play again. It also made me realise that the same people we look up to as heroes and role models are the same as you and I, and potentially have the same demons. Sport has a role to play in opening up the conversation on mental health and showing people they are not alone and a few of those brave people have made that conversation come about and I thank them for it. The more they talk, the more ‘normal’ it becomes (gosh, I hate that word!) Still a way to go to beat some of the stigma but at least we have made a start.

Secondly and most importantly for me, whilst I was unable to physically play rugby or even train at times, it was possible for me to get some positive output from being a part of a rugby club. Obviously as I got back into it I got the positives from exercising and the chemicals that released. When I wasn’t ready for that, sport gave me somewhere to be. I could watch the team, I could be a part of the club and support still and, ultimately, when I opened up I found there were others who shared some of my demons. There was always someone on hand to talk to, there was always someone with a positive word to say. The biggest one of all: nobody treated me any differently when I opened up about my mental health issues, there was never anyone standing on eggshells around me and there was nobody making derogatory comments. In a macho/bantering culture it can be easy for people to throw words around without thinking about the implication but I never found issue with it. The fact that I can be that open about things is hugely important to me as I cannot be that open at work about it; there is still a stigma attached to it in a corporate environment and I am still wary of being treated differently or workloads being reduced if I were to be too open.

Ultimately to some people it does not seem a lot, but when you can’t physically get out of bed, are scared to go outside and in the deepest hole possible, small things like these can slowly and step by step help you to get back to the person you are. I am still not there myself, but rugby is helping me to make each day a little bit easier.

In the future I may publish more specific bits on my mental health, how I live with it, what it is to me specifically, but for now I am happy just testing the water of the blogging world!

Reproduced with permission, originally published here

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