Sport Psychologists: Crucial cogs in the mental health machine
The last few months have seen an increasing focus on mental health in sport. There have been a number of position statements published including:
Faculty of sport and Exercise Medicine (FASEM) and Royal College of Psychiatrists joint position statement on the role of physical activity and sport in mental health (https://www.fsem.ac.uk/position_statement/the-role-of-physical-activity-and-sport-in-mental-health/#)
FEPSAC position statement on Mental health disorders in elite athletes and models of service provision (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1469029218300153)
International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) position stand: Athletes’ mental health, performance, and development (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1612197X.2017.1295557?journalCode=rijs20)
The publication of the ‘mental health and elite sport action plan’ by the UK government (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mental-health-and-elite-sport-action-plan) has sought to further highlight the importance of developing mentally healthy environments and appropriate knowledge and support within sport. All of which serves to provide significant opportunity for sport psychologists to position themselves at the heart of the performance sport environment.
However, in order to do this many sport psychologists are going to need to further develop their skill set and expertise. In order to provide value in this new role sport psychologists need to ensure four things. First, that they have a good grounding in mental health conditions, symptoms and signs. While sport psychologists in the UK are trained as psychologists mental health education has to-date been limited in the training and education process. Second, those sport psychologists need to develop their skill set and expertise to be in a position to feel comfortable working with a range of sub-clinical mental health conditions. It might be that those practitioners don’t diagnose and treat in isolation, but they could well form part of a specific intervention team. Third, all practitioners should have a clearly identified support/ referral network. The importance of the first point raised is not necessarily to treat the athlete, but to be able to signpost appropriate options to the athlete in question. So, having a referral network including a clinical psychologist and ideally a psychiatrist who has expertise working in/with sport should be a basic requirement, the network could also include performance lifestyle experts as well. That way, sport psychologists can serve as the link between the sporting environment and the mental health support that is available. Fourth, the sport psychologist is also well placed to be able to deliver educational support and awareness raising interventions within the sporting environment that might not be as well received by an ‘outsider’.
As mentioned before, as psychologists sport psychologists should have a sufficiently robust understanding of mental health and mental health conditions to fulfill an important role in fostering mentally healthy environments in sport at all levels. We should also be involved in the referral and in some cases part of interventions delivered. However, in order to do this the profession needs to better understand the mental health landscape, and how best to support individuals experiencing mental health challenges in sport.
If you are attending the British Psychological Society (BPS) Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology (DSEP) annual conference in Belfast next week (3rd and 4th December) you would be very welcome at my workshop on ‘Developing a mental health focus for practitioner sport and exercise psychologists’.