Mental health support in sport expands as demand surges

Australian Institute of Sport
  • AIS Mental Health Referral Network (MHRN) now available to more sporting staff
  • Record 68 per cent increase in referrals to AIS MHRN in 2021
  • Calls for coaches and retired athletes to reach out for support too
  • The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has responded to record demand for its mental health and wellbeing support by expanding its specialist services to a greater number of sporting staff right across the country.

    The AIS Mental Health Referral Network (MHRN) received 444 referrals in 2021, an increase of 68 per cent on the previous year’s record 264 referrals.

    The AIS MHRN was established in 2018 and consists of more than 60 expert psychologists and mental health clinicians spread across every state and territory, all who understand the pressures and complexity of life in a high performance sport setting.

    While it has primarily focused on helping past and present athletes, coaches, and high performance staff across Australia’s Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports, the AIS is now broadening that support to other staff members, such as office staff, at AIS-funded National Sporting Organisations.

    AIS Acting CEO Matti Clements says: “Importantly, this means that about 600 more staff in Australian sport will have access to free, confidential and potentially life-changing support services.

    “The AIS Mental Health Referral Network is already available to thousands of people in Australian high performance sport, but also past athletes.”

    Sport Australia Acting CEO Rob Dalton says: “Sports told us how valuable the AIS Mental Health Referral Network was. So we felt it was also important to expand that support to staff who may not directly be working with high performance athletes every day but are just as important in the administration and success of our sporting bodies. This includes positions such as CEOs, General Managers, Administration Officers, Analysts and Coordinators.”

    Rather than be alarmed by the increase in referrals in 2021, Clements encouraged more people in sport – especially coaches and past athletes – to reach out for support if, and when, they needed it.

    “The vast majority of people reaching out for support are current athletes and there’s a wide variety of reasons, such as relationships, transition in and out of sport, training, anxiety, sleep, nutrition and just general wellbeing. Our message is that ‘if it’s worrying you, it’s important to us, so talking to someone can make a positive difference’. Even if you consider it a small problem, act early and don’t let it become bigger.

    “It’s understandable that we saw a rise in referrals in 2021 because we’ve been living in a prolonged pandemic world, and it was also an Olympic and Paralympic year which can carry increased stresses.

    “But the pleasing thing for the AIS is that people in sport are more aware of the support available and are more willing to reach out for help. Athletes are proactively contacting the service. The AIS also funds a national network of more than 30 Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement managers in sports and they have been a huge help in connecting athletes with our support services.

    “Our research tells us one-in-three high performance athletes are dealing with mental health or wellbeing concerns and so, with some 2,500 athletes involved in the high performance sport at any one time, we want to see the Mental Health Referral Network continuing to grow and helping more people.

    “In particular, we want to encourage more coaches and past athletes to seek this support. High Performance coaches often have to shoulder a big workload as well as supporting their athletes and teams, so we want them to prioritise their wellbeing too. We want past athletes to know that just because their competitive sporting careers may be over, there is help available as they transition to life after sport too.”

    The AIS places a priority on understanding mental health and wellbeing in Australian sport so that it can evolve its services to meet current and future needs.

    The AIS last year launched Wellbeing Health Checks, an ongoing and targeted resource to measure the wellbeing cultures of high performance sporting programs.

    In May the AIS will also conduct its Mental Health Audit, a survey held every two years to help guide future wellbeing services and support.

    “It’s extremely important that athletes and sports participate in these anonymous surveys such as the AIS Wellbeing Health Checks and the AIS Mental Health Audit because it’s these regular check-ups which enable us to understand how we can best help you now and also adapt to better support athletes of the future. Some of these surveys only take about 10 minutes of your time, but the information you give can have positive and long-lasting impact on wellbeing services in Australian high performance sport.

    “Some people may think this doesn’t apply to me, I’m fine and I’m not impacted by mental health or wellbeing issues right now. But every person’s participation is just as important. The more views we get from people across elite sport, the better we can provide for everyone’s needs.”

    F

    /Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).