A roundtable on sport and mental health

Exercise is known to be good for people with mental health problems, yet taking part in elite sport poses unique challenges to athletes’ mental health. That was the paradox discussed at a roundtable on sport and mental health that took place between four Chartered Psychologists at the Society’s Annual Conference in London, in April. The roundtable was chaired Emeritus Professor Ken Brown, Chair of the Society’s Standing Conference Committee.

Dr Victor Thompson, himself a competitive triathlete, spoke about the pressures on elite athletes. All must attempt to maintain confidence in their own abilities and performance, yet many will eventually have to accept that their careers will not be fulfilled – either because of injury or because they are not quite good enough to reach the very top.

He also spoke of the particular pressures on athletes in the Internet age, when every spectator and armchair fan can be a critic too. A contributor from the audience said that in his experience top rugby players cannot keep away from blogs and Twitter even though they know they should.

Dr Roger Kingerlee talked about the particular difficulty of engaging men in therapy for mental health problems – men report lower rates of depression than women yet have a far higher suicide rate. One approach he has found useful is breaking down the body/mind distinction and encouraging men to take more exercise without worrying too much whether it is an intervention aimed at mental or physical health problems.

George Karseras spoke about the problems that elite athletes can have when they retire from their sport. Almost overnight, they lose the companionship, meaning and mental highs that their sport gave them. Not only that: the habits of minutely analysing and then taking responsibility for their own performance that they have learned in sport can be positively harmful if they start to experience depressive symptoms after that chapter of their life has closed.

Finally, Dr Jurai Darongkamas spoke about her experience of setting up a competitive football team for people with serious mental health problems. She explained that she was not a great lover of the game herself but had wanted to find an activity for men beside the art and pottery that was on offer in her service. She discussed the benefits the team had brought to those taking part and some of the dilemmas around encouraging participation and aiming for the best possible team.

A lively discussion ensued and one audience member offered an interesting formulation that summed up the session. He suggested it may be that athletes can become too fixated on the body and neglect their mental well-being, while people with mental health problems can become too fixated on the mental aspect of life and neglect physical activity and well-being.