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Michael Jamieson and MercyCorps on mental health in sport

ByLaura Hendry

Nov 21, 2017

Monday evening’s talk by London 2012 Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson and global humanitarian aid agency, MercyCorps, provided a shrewd insight to the role of mental health in sport, at both an elite and recreational level.

Organised by EUSA and the Sports Union to mark the beginning of the university’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Week (13th-17th November), the presentation was part of the first #LetsTalk series on Sport and Mental Health to come over the following weeks.

According to Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), one in four Scots will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime and in every classroom of sixteen children, three will suffer from such an affliction.

Sport can provide a welcome distraction to the stresses of everyday life, particularly for young children. Team sports can rapidly boost self-confidence and offer a platform for life-long friendships to be built.

As highlighted by the guest speakers from MercyCorps at the #LetsTalk event, sport has come to play a vital role in improving the lives of thousands of young refugees, particularly in war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq. An estimated number of eight million Syrian children are currently suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, equating to nearly half of the refugee children in Syria.

This is likely to stem from constantly having to live life in ‘survival mode’ and thus being more prone to depression and feelings of isolation. Funded by MercyCorps, youth centres have been set up where children can access a gym, burn off energy and form bonds with other children in their local community.

On a sports therapy program in Iraq, a reported ninety percent of refugee children who regularly participate in football matches at the youth centre have increased self-confidence and seventy percent of participants have improved their academic grades.

As Nuala Mendham, a representative from the Edinburgh branch of MercyCorps, succinctly highlights, in terms of supporting these young children, “Without addressing psycho-social well-being, other investments in education, social and economic development cannot meet their full potential”.

However, for elite athletes in competitive disciplines, sport is fundamentally about being the best – the biggest, the fastest, the strongest – and therefore its relationship with mental health can be a rather precarious one.

Michael Jamieson, a competitive British swimmer and self-confessed training addict, officially announced his retirement from the sport in February of this year. On Monday evening, he spoke openly of his mental struggle with a brutal training regime and the bouts of depression that followed intense periods of competition.

Jamieson’s self-inflicted “all or nothing” mentality essentially caused him “to push his body beyond the limits of what it was capable of doing,” to the point that when he was injured and his team mates were not, he would ask them, “how far are you really pushing yourself?”.

Jamieson talked openly about taking ownership of his own choices but acknowledged that whilst he is “thankful for all the lessons and the learning, being grateful for the injuries can be difficult”. He also stressed that following his retirement, his funding was pulled and he has since received “zero contact” from British swimming.

It seems that for athletes competing at the upper echelons of British sport, being physically strong does not necessarily equate to being mentally fit, and there is a distinct lack of support or acknowledgment of the pressures that can be detrimental not just to a sporting career, but the experience of everyday life.

However, on a recreational level, it is important to highlight the benefits that a healthy attitude to sport can bring, not just for the thousands of refugee children on recovery programs in Iraq and Syria, but also on a personal level.

Whether that means a weekly trip to the gym, running around on an intramural pitch with your teammates every now and then, or simply a brisk walk across the Meadows to that dreaded 9am lecture, we could all benefit from trying to get the balance right.


Image Courtesy of .Martin.

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