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This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year carries the theme of loneliness.

While ‘loneliness’ creates images of physical distance between people, the lack of emotional connection, or simply not having someone to turn to and to trust when needed, can also severely impact upon an individual’s mental health.

The issue is becoming more and more prevalent in sport, and here Kristian Thomas – part of the gymnastics World Class Programme for 10 years and the BAC’s Athlete Engagement Manager between 2019 and early 2022 – gives his views on how elite sport is now more equipped to deal with mental health concerns, and the progress that still needs to be made.

“When I was a young gymnast, I’m not sure mental health was ever really discussed, or even referenced between team-mates and staff. There may have been some mental health provisions in place, but I was fortunate to be part of a strong group of team-mates that supported each other through whatever the journey of an athlete put in our way.

“On reflection, though this brought the team closer together, we should have been having these discussions with practitioners that could offer more specific and professional support.

“I believe that this was a fairly accurate reflection of where society in general was at that point in time – there was acknowledgement and general sympathy towards those who reported mental health concerns, however there was perhaps still something of a stigma, and certainly not the education and support, openness and awareness that exists now.

“Having been involved in elite sport in some capacity for the last 15 years, I believe that the progress in this area has been monumental. There are now multiple mechanisms in place to offer athletes support, and – crucially – to ensure that the support they do receive is appropriate and right for them, whether that’s through their sport or through an independent channel such as the BAC. 

“Key to this has been the courage of high profile athletes in speaking out about their own struggles – I think that this has really driven the message home that mental health doesn’t discriminate; you can be the most successful, most popular, most respected of people and athletes, but nobody knows – or has the right to assume – what you are facing on a day-to-day basis.

“While athletes have taken great strength from this, sports have also had to learn and to adapt.

“The mental health provisions within sport now are pretty comprehensive. Not only do we have practitioners that continue to develop and expand this provision across the high performance system, but also mental health champions that help elevate this work, helping to normalise mental health conversations and raise awareness of the support available.

“Change has certainly taken place, but there’s so much more we can be doing as a system. In the BAC’s latest Athlete Survey, conducted last October, mental health was respondents’ most mentioned issue. Amongst other things, athletes raised that they still believe a stigma exists, and the challenges that still surround finding the courage to report a problem.

“There is exceptional work being done by some incredibly dedicated people in this area. However during this Mental Health Awareness Week, I’d urge everyone within elite sport to not only be rightfully proud of how far we’ve come, but also look at what we can continue to do to in order to ensure that sport leads the way in promoting conversation and supporting those who report a mental health concern.”

The BAC can provide independent, confidential support to athletes at any point. If you require our support, please email support@britishathletes.org.

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