How elite sportswomen have helped put mental health on the agenda, by Callum Ferguson
Following the cancellation of most major events last summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was great to see our stars reunited with their fans. However, as well as the titles and accolades, some sporting events brought the topic of mental health to the news agenda, demonstrating that we must continue to educate people on this problem.
A new star was born in the world of tennis, as Emma Raducanu won the US Open. The 18-year-old did not lose a single set on her way to victory, becoming the first British woman to win the US Open since Virginia Wade in 1977.
However impressive her story may be, we must not forget that Raducanu faced her own mental health challenges. She retired from her fourth-round match at Wimbledon, after needing a medical timeout. It was later revealed that Raducanu experienced ‘breathing difficulties’, caused by the stress of playing at Wimbledon.
Raducanu’s openness about her mental health is commendable, showing that it is natural to experience this. However, some criticised her actions. Piers Morgan took to Twitter, writing “[Raducanu] couldn’t handle the pressure and quit when she was losing badly. Not ‘brave’, just a shame.”
His comments displayed a lack of understanding around the situation, with Morgan using his platform to condescend to the teenager rather than show any empathy. To reach the fourth-round was a fantastic achievement and this should have been celebrated instead of her being criticised for retiring.
Another tennis player that has struggled with mental health is Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open due to ‘mental health concerns’. She also did not participate at Wimbledon after needing time away from the sport.
Her openness to speak about this topic shows a positive change in sportspeople’s views on the subject. In previous years, several may have been afraid to speak about this and would potentially withdraw from competitions due to a faked injury. This shift in sportspeople feeling more comfortable to talk about their situations can only be positive.
One main way society can help to tackle mental health issues is by speaking about it frequently. It is therefore refreshing to see sportspeople beginning to do so; hopefully this can translate to society feeling encouraged to do the same.
Elite sportspeople face an unmeasurable about of pressure during their careers and the Olympics is one of the most high-pressured competitions. Gymnast, Simone Biles, knows this all too well. She is the tied most decorated gymnast of all time, with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals. However, after winning one bronze medal in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, she withdrew from her other events due to mental health problems. She said on social media that her “mind and body were not in sync”.
Again, this furthers the conversation with Biles feeling comfortable to withdraw and take the time away that she needed.
It has not just been sportspeople that have helped to drive mental health into the mainstream media. Royals Megan Markle and Prince Harry have come out this year to speak about their mental health issues and criticised the Royal Family for their lack of support.
Clearly mental health issues can affect anyone and as a society we must be more in tune to people’s need for support. Mental Health Foundation found that in any given week, 1 in 6 people worldwide would have experienced a common mental health problem.
There are stark differences in the reactions towards mental health from Piers Morgan and the elder members of the Royal Family, who showed a lack of empathy compared to Megan and Harry and the brave sportspeople who spoke out about their own problems as well as campaigning around the subject.
Heads Together is a campaign co-ordinated by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. In 2019, Heads Together partnered with The Football Association to create the Heads-Up campaign, which aims to encourage more males talking about their mental health.
The Duke of Cambridge has been particularly vocal in this campaign, speaking to Premier League footballers and England manager Gareth Southgate to try to spread the positive message.
There are many more campaigns and charities in the UK and globally that are attempting to tackle mental health.
As more people begin to talk and learn about this topic, hopefully more will seek the help needed. The positive stance that elite sportspeople are taking when speaking about their own struggles reinforces that they too are human; mental health does not discriminate.
Using their high profiles to raise awareness is a big boost to putting mental health firmly on the agenda. Hopefully others, like Morgan and the senior Royal Family members can see the importance of using their status to create positive change in society rather than animosity.
October 10th 2021 marks World Mental Health Day in which we recognise mental illnesses and the profound effect they can have on individuals. The pandemic has highlighted the need for more services to tackle mental health illnesses, with increased numbers requiring support.
Since the pandemic, there has been a greater awareness and emphasis on mental health. Whilst this emergence of a more open culture is promising, more is required to tackle mental health issues in society. It is vital that continued investment remains to reach parity of services between physical and mental health.
Callum Ferguson recently graduated with a 1st class BA Hons in Sport Journalism from The University of Brighton. His dissertation was on the under-representation of British South Asians in football and he researched and written about this topic over the past 12 months. He continues to write about the under-representation, continuing the conversation by spreading awareness about the issue.
Callum has a passion for using his writing to create positive change within society and working towards a more racially inclusive society.