All you need to know about World Mental Health Day

On 10 October, the World Federation for Mental Health holds its big annual event with the IOC, UN and WHO playing their parts to raise public awareness.

By Rory Jiwani ·

Saturday 10 October is World Mental Health Day.

Established by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) in association with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations (UN), it aims to raise awareness of mental health issues at a time when it is needed perhaps more than ever.

The world has been rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic with the virus and its consequences, plus lockdowns and other measures to contain its spread, causing hardship and unexpected challenges for people across the globe.

Even before the virus struck, mental health was a growing concern particularly for people aged between 15 and 29.

Sportspeople have also suffered in this pandemic era with star sprinter Noah Lyles and world champion artistic gymnast Joe Fraser among those admitting to struggles recently.

In an Athlete365 survey in May of over 4,000 athletes and entourage members, 32% of respondents reported that they had found managing their mental health one of their biggest challenges.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is working hard to support sportspeople at this time, and India's Olympic shooting champion Abhinav Bindra will join WHO President Dr Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus for the WHO's Big Event on Mental Health.

The IOC and Athlete365 have taken great strides to offer support to those suffering with mental health issues.

In May this year, Athlete365 held webinars with marathon king Eliud Kipchoge and retired two-time Olympic alpine skiing champion Aksel Lund Svindal where they discussed how they were coping with Covid restrictions.

WATCH: Eliud Kipchoge Athlete365 webinar

WATCH: Aksel Lund Svindal Athlete365 webinar

Olympic champion and sub-two hour marathon man Eliud Kipchoge

As a current athlete, Kipchoge was able to pass on advice on how to stay motivated in these difficult times.

He said, "Lesson number one is that we can travel the whole world, but the most important thing is your family. You need to go back to your family, and take care of your family. That’s one thing that lockdown has reminded me. They are still my motivation to go out at 5am for a run.

"Secondly, we need to be patient. And thirdly, we need to respect the directives of our local governments, and of the whole world. Altogether, if we think positive then we can beat COVID-19 and the world will return to normal."

"Let’s think positive and live in a positive way." - Eliud Kipchoge

Sport and mental health

While sport has obvious physical benefits, it also has a major positive impact on mental health.

In addition to the well-documented 'endorphin rush' from physical activity such as running or cycling, recreational sport and exercise can help relieve stress and enforce positive habits like goal-setting and attainment.

But things get a bit more serious in the world of competitive and professional sport.

There, the activity itself can become a source of stress with the need to train and perform at a high level.

In some disciplines, the athlete may have to juggle their sporting ambitions with a job which provides some financial security.

The pandemic has had obvious effects on athletes and their entourages with 56% admitting that 'finding ways to train effectively' was a major challenge.

Half of the respondents said they found it hard to stay motivated with 27% saying they were struggling with regard to funding their sporting career.

These answers show that even if athletes are not admitting outright to struggling with mental health at present, they have worries which could lead to a decline in their wellbeing.

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Lyles details battle with depression

Sprinter Noah Lyles, a man set to be one of the stars of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, is proof that anyone can suffer mental health issues.

Homesickness and a busy schedule ahead of last year's World Championships in Doha saw him fall into depression which he managed with the help of a therapist and his family.

But the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted a relapse which the 200m world champion managed to address successfully with antidepressants.

Despite there still being something of a stigma surrounding mental health, his revelation on social media was met with widespread support and acclaim.

"My family came down for Christmas and my mum was really starting to worry about me. So that’s when I started ringing my personal therapist on a regular basis, and it was going well for a time. But once coronavirus hit and the Black Lives Matter movement started happening, it created the perfect storm." - Noah Lyles

The impact of social media on mental health

Social media has also presented a range of challenges.

'Trolling' of sporting stars has increased, particularly in disciplines like figure skating and artistic gymnastics.

Being able to handle social media abuse can impact an athlete's wellbeing with some managing to do so more deftly than others.

Olympic medallists Adam Rippon and Evgenia Medvedeva spoke about dealing with haters and trolls on the Olympic Channel Podcast earlier this year with the latter taking a break from social media in the summer of 2019 after receiving a torrent of abuse.

"Honestly, at first I was really a little bit of afraid of them. Like, 'Why are you doing all this stuff because I didn't do something bad to you.' Then I tried not to check all the comments. It wasn't a good situation. It wasn't really good for my mental health." - Evgenia Medvedeva

Sochi 2014 team bronze medallist Gracie Gold quit figure skating in 2017 and received treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.

Gold, who has since returned to the ice, spoke openly about her struggles at last year's IOC International Athlete Forum in Lausanne saying she wished she had shared her story earlier.

"At first I didn’t want to come out because of the stigma, which made me feel like I was the only one who wasn’t strong enough. But I got hundreds and hundreds of responses from athletes at all levels and in all sports, saying 'Me Too.'”

"We're really the first generation to experience it. I could never ask my Mom, 'What did you do when someone hurt your feelings on Instagram?'"

"There's this pressure to be so perfect and I found being a woman and being in figure skating, one of the more glamorous sports, there is this whole other persona that I had to make so that people would like me online that I've never met."

She also appeared in the HBO documentary 'Weight of Gold' - narrated and produced by all-time swimming great Michael Phelps - featuring a number of American Olympic athletes talking about the effect elite sporting competition has had on their mental health.

The 25-year-old told Olympic Channel the film was "really necessary for the skating community, for the Olympic community, for the sport community as a whole".

"There hasn’t been (a documentary) that has talked about the underbelly and the dark side and some of the real low points that we as athletes face."

She said of Phelps, "He's a real-life superhero from how physically strong he is to what he has accomplished on the Olympic stage. And he still has mental health issues. It's not a reflection of character or how strong you are."

Gold continues to be a vocal advocate for mental health.

"I'll feel really content when there are many resources available for athletes when our brain kind of breaks as when we break our ankle." - Gracie Gold

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Boudia bounces back

David Boudia is another athlete who has fought back from depression.

Failing to perform to his best on his Olympic debut at Beijing 2008 was the trigger for a bout of mental ill-health which saw him contemplate suicide.

The comedown of being "an average Joe again" on his return to Purdue University after "walking next to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant into the Bird's Nest" for the Opening Ceremony was just too much.

Boudia told his coach and his now wife about his problems, and he soon got his life back on track.

"That was when I started to live, to see joy in the world around me and not think about that gold medal all the time.

"I think that's when I saw my career kind of take off. When I started to take those baby steps and value the journey."

And that gold medal did come, at London 2012.

"That drive that I had was wanting the fame and success and the riches. I realised that it doesn't work that way." - David Boudia

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Strategies to improve mental health and performance

Being a successful athlete requires both physical and mental agility.

Dealing with setbacks and achieving ones maximum performance requires resilience as well as serious amounts of self-belief.

In the Olympic Channel series Olympic State of Mind, in association with Bridgestone, top athletes discuss how they use visualisation, motivation and mindfulness to help them achieve their goals.

Among the stars are Olympic gold medallists Allyson Felix, Jordan Burroughs and Thomas Rohler, and world badminton champion PV Sindhu.

London 2012 wrestling champion Burroughs realised he needed to change his mental approach after his quarter-final defeat at Rio 2016 to Russia's Aniuar Geduev.

He said, "This was the most devastating loss that I had ever taken in my career. And so I was like, if I'm going to come back, I'm going to refine myself both physically but also psychologically and spiritually.

"You can't always win. Everyone can't win. And there have been times where I've done everything right leading up to a major event and I still got beat. Like, 'It wasn't meant for you. You get an opportunity to try to do it again.'" - Olympic wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs