Sport Sport Focus Why so many star athletes suffer mental health problems

Why so many star athletes suffer mental health problems

Caitlin Thwaites shoots at goal for Australia. Photo: Getty
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Netballer Caitlin Thwaites’ admission she has fought depression and anxiety ended a week headlined, in the sporting world, by the news that rugby league star Greg Inglis had checked himself into a mental health clinic.

Thwaites — a gold medallist with Australia at the 2014 Commonwealth Games — told the Nine Network’s In Her Court podcast that at her lowest point netball was the only thing getting her out of bed each day.

Thwaites and Inglis are two of the many athletes fighting mental health battles, with AFL star Lance Franklin and rugby league’s Darius Boyd just some of the others who have opened up publicly about their battle.

It is an issue that seems far more common than it did, say 10 years ago — something observers put down to a reduction in the stigma surrounding, and increased awareness of, mental health.

Hugh van Cuylenburg speaks to elite sports teams and athletes about mental health with his The Resilience Project program, and he agrees that athletes feel “more confident” about opening up these days. He says a relatively new invention plays a key role in depression in our sporting stars.

“I talk to athletes about the damage social media is doing to us,” he told The New Daily.

“They receive more information than ever before because of social media and it is causing anxiety … the material we see is not always good for us.

Then there’s the element of 24-7 criticism, something which Van Cuylenburg says is impossible to avoid on social media.

“Athletes are also often inundated with very negative feedback and it’s from people they’ve never met before,” he said.

“No matter how strong you are, that will wear you down eventually.

“The people who work for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram — they have thousands of employees and their job is to make us addicted.

“The delayed, variable reward, which is what happens when you scroll up, wait a couple of seconds, and then see an update or notifications —that’s the same technology that they use in slot machines and on the pokies.”

Greg Inglis is one of rugby league’s biggest names. Photo: Getty

Van Cuylenburg acknowledges smartphones are here to stay, but the key, he says, is to limit usage of them.

“I’m not saying devices are all bad but the amount of time people spend on social media is damaging to their mental health,” he added.

“I tell athletes, if you’re driving, put the phone in the boot so it’s not a distraction.

“When you’re at home, occasionally turn them off and put them in a draw. As a society, we are just not as present as we used to be.”

Psychiatrist and former Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry, helped treat former AFL star Nathan Thompson when he battled depression.

“There’s been a lot of talk about sledging on the field recently. Well, what is said on social media can be a million times worse,” he told The New Daily.

Professor McGorry, who said athletes are “more comfortable” seeking help these days, believes the discussion surrounding Thwaites and Inglis’ issues is important for those suffering in silence.

“It makes people realise that sports stars are just human beings and, just like us, can be vulnerable,” he added.

Van Cuylenburg agrees, adding: “Caitlin Thwaites and Greg Inglis, by talking about it or by it being news — it empowers people struggling to do something.”

If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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