By David Tuchman
Mental health can be a struggle for student athletes across Canada. That struggle can sometimes be very damaging. With few outlets or resources availble for them, finding any help is a challenge in of itself.
In Ottawa, however, a new centre promises to help athletes who are suffering from mental health issues.
“There is still a lot of stigma around mental health, in sport specifically. I think we’re starting to talk in the general public, so [stigma] is starting to reduce but with sport it is slow to catch up,” says Krista Van Slingerland, co-founder of the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport (CCMHS).
Van Slingerland says that there is an idea in sports that athletes must be “mentally tough.” She says it’s especially prevalent in team sports.
“You are expected to pull your weight. An injury that you can’t see is really difficult for athletes and coaches to understand that it is legitimate,” she continued.
Natalie Durand-Bush, the other co-founder of the CCMHS and a professor of sports psychology at the University of Ottawa, says the current help available to athletes and coaches can actually end up being harmful to them and not offering the connection needed for them to feel comfortable.
“Some [athletes] would say that, ‘I am experiencing anxiety, I was referred to the counselling centre on campus, I went to see this person…I explained my situation, the person suggested that I just quit sport,’ which is more devastating to hear,” Durand-Bush said.
The CCMHS, which serves high-level athletes and coaches, is the only one of its kind in all of Canada and the second one in the entire world. The first is in far-away Sweden. The point of the centre is to address how high-level sports can sometimes contribute to mental strain in athletes.
“The way it was done, it was quite debilitative. In some of these cases, it causes more harm than good because it increases the anxiety instead of being done in a way that helps [athletes] to increase awareness and better manage their symptoms,” Durand-Bush says.
For Van Slingerland, a former varsity athlete at the University of Ottawa, creating the centre was personal. As an athlete, Van Slingerland struggled with anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
“The Centre is creating a light out of a really dark space for me,” she says. “Since coming out the other side of that experience, I really focused on improving sports culture and the experience of other athletes in the sense that they can be open and receive support for their own mental health challenges.”
The OCAA has its own partnerships to promote mental health awareness. In January 2018, 24 OCAA schools partnered with Bell Let’s Talk. Joel Mrak, Vice President of Marketing at the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association, wrote in a press release at the time that enriching the overall academic experience of student-athletes is core to the support the OCAA offers across campuses.
There is still a space for the CCMHS within the OCAA, however. Kyle Pelly, the OCAA executive director, says that the CCMHS can be very beneficial for student athletes.
“If students are able to take advantage of services, [and] if there are potential mental health issues at stake then that sounds like a really great opportunity for them,” he says.
How athletes deal with mental health differs from person to person. Kevin Rempel, a 2013 World Champion and 2014 Sochi Paralympic bronze medalist in sledge hockey, had to overcome a tremendous amount of adversity to get to that point.
In 2006, Kevin was paralyzed following a motocross accident leaving his back and pelvis broken. He was an incomplete paraplegic. A year later, Rempel’s father took his own life.
“It was devastating,” Rempel says. “It’s hard when the lights are off and you’re all by yourself. You have to be the one to choose how you’re going to keep handling those situations.”
Rempel, however, was determined to take control over the awful circumstances.
“You need to accept responsibility for your life. You may not be responsible for it happening to you but you’re responsible for what you do about it. In this case, I was responsible for what happened to me and I had nobody to blame,” Rempel says. “Just have the mindset of waking up everyday and choosing to have a positive attitude and try to keep moving forward.”
One topic Van Slingerland stressed was the centre was not just for athletes, but for coaches and staff as well, to give them the knowledge and tools to help their athletes.
Andy Sparks, Head Coach of the University of Ottawa’s Women’s Basketball team says that identifying and learning strategies for each different mental illness is essential in helping an athlete cope, especially in a team setting.
“The protocols that have to go along with each different types of mental illness have to be developed at this point. [They] are all essential to make sure you give the athlete the best opportunity to be the best they can be in the sport they want to play,” Sparks says.
One thing Sparks stressed as a key aspect in learning how to work with athletes who are struggling is early identification.
“[The] education part for all of our coaches continues to grow in this area so that we can be more aware of the warning signs so that we can get the necessary help early if that is required, and understand where to go to get that help,” he says.
However, the stigma surrounding mental illness is still so strong that it leads to athletes not wanting to speak with their coaches about it. They may fear of being scolded or worse. Durand-Bush says that an athlete’s relationship with their coach is one of the factors that is contributing to the struggle.
“Some coaches have a really tough mentality when they are coaching, to the point where some are considered emotionally abusive in the way they talk to their athletes,” she says. “[They] treat their athletes just like they are numbers or commodities and if they are not performing up to their potential then they are basically disregarded or discarded.”
“So, in some of these environments where the climate is really negative and tough… [it’s] just unforgiving,” Durand-Bush says.
Sparks, whose coaching career spans 42 years, says this is still a huge problem and one of the reasons why the CCMHS is so important.
“It is unquestionably strong. This is part of the importance of type of an organization that Krista and Natalie have started with. It’s that for athletes, there is a stigma that goes along with mental illness,” he says.
“In a team sport you have other people that are depending on you, and often athletes will unquestionably to try to hide how they are feeling. I think our society has to work to bring down any of those barriers that have people with mental illness feeling that way about themselves so that the treatment can come in a timely fashion.”