Mental Health First Aid in Sports

Sports and fitness usually go hand-in-hand with health and well-being. Exercise, fresh air, social connectedness, goal setting and the sense of personal achievement, can all have positive impacts on physical, mental and social well-being. Sporting teams, clubs and associations can also be a great place to give and receive mental health support. 

Mental Health First Aid® Australia is pleased to work with many sporting and fitness organisations, and to witness the increasing role of sports in the delivery of community-based Mental Health First Aid (MHFA™) training. 

What makes sporting communities the ideal place for Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Training?

Australia is often referred to as a “sporting nation”. There are sports for everyone, from juniors to seniors, beginners to experienced, and social amateurs through to professionals. Sports can be individual, team or simply fitness and strength based. The commonality in all of this is that the teams, clubs, gyms and associations that deliver these opportunities, can be ideal places for the delivery of mental health and well-being programs, including Mental Health First Aid training.

Here’s why:

  • Accessibility and connection – sporting and fitness organisations span all states and territories, and they have traction in their local community. Sports and fitness providers offer a place for people to meet and connect over shared interests. This makes them the perfect places for peer-to-peer interactions that foster community-based mental health support.
  • Informal approach – for some, mental health can seem like a daunting topic. Stigma still exists and is a barrier to help seeking. For many, clinical care is not being accessed. Sporting and fitness environments can offer people a friendly, approachable, and casual place to access support from like-minded people.
  • Role models – positive role models and championing from coaches, trainers, teammates and other leaders, can promote awareness and positive action. Sporting and fitness organisations are excellent and promoting success stories, and these can include mental health messages. Research has suggested that hearing about mental health from respected peers is a powerful way of reducing stigma.

  • Opportunities to learn – Members of sporting and fitness organisations may not have access to mental health training and education in any other settings in their life. Equipping these places with the opportunity to learn to about mental health and how to provide support broadens the safety net for whole-of-community, and complements the efforts of workplaces, schools and other community groups.
  • Positive structures – sporting and fitness environments often focus on ideals such discipline, goal setting, self-improvement and commitment, these can compliment the promotion and execution well-being programs. They also tend to have structures that incorporate leadership from coaches, managers, trainers, and other well-being professionals, who can be perfectly placed to lead and administer training.
  • Reach – Sporting and fitness organisations often have enormous reach within their communities. They have many members from different walks of life. Training offered in these settings can impact more people, who in turn can go on to support others within the club, or further afield in their homes, workplaces, schools and broader communities.
  • Camaraderie and teamwork – A sense of togetherness, belonging and team work often underpins sporting and fitness organisations. This can be ideal for identifying people who may be showing signs or symptoms of mental health problems. It can provide teams and other sporting groups with a sense of achievement and pride to help each other when times are tough.

Coaches, trainers, senior club members and team leaders are perfectly placed to undertake Mental Health First Aid training. They will be better equipped to understand the impacts of mental health on their members, and to identify problems.  They will develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to hold mental health conversations, and provide support to anyone who needs help.

Why is mental health in sports important?

People experiencing mental health problems come from all walks of life. They can be of any age, gender, sex, education level, culture, or socio-economic profile. This can even include people who seemingly have no worries, such as the highly successful member of the team and even famous sports people.  

Every person’s needs will vary, and not everyone has equal access to supports. Barriers such as stigma, fear, misinformation, social isolation and lack of access to services, can prevent people from getting the help they need for diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

Sporting organisations have also experienced negative aspects to their culture. Issues such as ‘toughen up’ attitudes, shaming, bullying or marginalisation within team and club environments can be extremely damaging. They can put people already experiencing mental health problems or other challenges at increased risk.

Promoting positive mental health in sports and fitness also makes sense in terms of overall well-being and performance. Happy, healthy and supported members are more likely to turn out the best results for themselves, their team and their community.

Sporting and fitness organisations and communities all have a responsibility to ensure a positive and supportive culture that promotes mental health wellbeing and safety. Being an active part of the solution by increasing the capacity to help anyone who is struggling, is vital.

“Mental health is not a very easy thing to talk about in sports. It’s not perceived as very masculine. We’re so trained to be ‘mentally tough’, in sports. To show weakness, we’re told, in so many words, is to deserve shame. But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed.”

Mardy Fish

Mental Health First Aid in Sports – Stories of success

Mental Health First Aid works with a range of sporting clubs and organisations including Australian Cricketers Associations, Netball NSW, Basketball NSW, Life Saving Victoria and WA, Exercise & Sports Science Australia, Flinders University, Disability Sport and Recreation, Richmond Football Club and Fernwood, to name a few.

Caillin Moore who works in the Community Engagement Team at Mental Health First Aid Australia, talks about some of the benefits of these partnerships, ‘We have a real diversity of sporting and fitness clubs that see real value in the delivery of Mental Health First Aid training. Typically they are conscious about challenges that their members, players and staff might be having with mental health problems, and want an evidence-based, practical solution. This shows intuitive leadership and initiative.

Implement MHFA training in your community:

Mental Health First Aid training can be adapted to your local community and organisational need including for adults, young people and specific cultures and issues. The program is:

  • Evidence based – extensively evaluated and reported on through various trials, peer reviews and expert consensus within Australia and overseas.
  • Practical – skill-based with applicability to diverse needs and environments. Our training is proven to:

– Improve knowledge – in mental health literacy

– Develop confidence – in providing mental health first aid

– Reduce stigma – decreasing negative attitudes and behaviours to mental health

– Improve support – equipping more individuals with the skillsets to provide support

  • Capacity building – drawing from our Australian developed curriculum to build on-the-ground capacity. People who complete an MHFA training course become MHFAiders® who go on to help support people in their local community.

MHFA Case Studies

Here are some more examples of MHFA training in action with sporting and fitness communities:

FERNWOOD FITNESS

When Fernwood Women’s Health and Fitness Club decided to introduce a new wellness program (Empower), to support the holistic health and wellbeing needs of members, they knew they needed a practical understanding of mental health issues.

RICHMOND INSTITUTE

As a nation, we love our sport. But it is no surprise that high performance, high profile environments such as elite sport, can result in pressures that impact on mental health.

Learn more about the work of Richmond Institute and their commitment to helping the broader community ‘thrive and win’

Further information

If your sporting or fitness organisation, club, team or community is ready to implement Mental Health First Aid training, or simply wants to find out more you can go to: https://community.mhfa.com.au

Copyright © MHFA Australia 2022