By Kearnan Myall, Performance Lifestyle Advisor, The English Institute of Sport

Over the last decade or so, the topic of mental health has been transformed from a taboo subject, only spoken about in privacy between a patient and their doctor, to a widely mentioned, newsworthy and hash-tagged trend. As the world we live in gets ever more interconnected, complicated, and stressful, mental health is becoming increasingly important for each and every one of us. But what actually is mental health, and what can we do to keep ourselves mentally healthy?

My own mental health has been something of a wild ride. At the age of 16 I was selected for the England Rugby Junior National Academy, where I experienced my first taste of sports psychology. The best young rugby players across the country were gathered together and put through a gruelling training regime. In between sessions we sat in lectures and learned about techniques to control our attention, focus on the task at hand, and develop mental toughness – all to make us better rugby players. As an ambitious and dedicated aspiring athlete, I made notes and duly practiced the techniques and advice I was given. This clearly paid dividends when, just a couple of years later, I made my professional debut. The following season I was voted young player and supporters player of the season in the same year. I was tough, physically and mentally. I pushed through pain, through injuries, and was never afraid to put my head where it hurts – a common phrase used in rugby to highlight a players dedication to the team. One thing I wasn’t, however, was mentally healthy.

Mental health, or illness, is the result of biological, psychological, and social influences. It’s impossible to point to one single reason why a person experiences depression or anxiety. I certainly wouldn’t point the blame at sports psychology or rugby for my own mental health struggles. What I will say, is that the ultra-competitive and masculine environment I was in, coupled with the techniques I had learned to suppress discomfort and pain, made it extremely difficult to even understand what was going on in my own head – let alone seek the help I needed. Midway through my career, I experienced severe depression. I felt useless, like I was a burden on everybody around me and that world would be a better place without me in it. I even came close to making that a reality. Part of the problem, was that the thoughts and feelings I was having were the complete opposite to everything I was taught an athlete should be. If you look at a definition of mental toughness from sports psychology, and compare it to symptoms of depression, the two are incompatible. Luckily, we now know this to be nonsense. Tyson Fury, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams are just a few of the top athletes to speak openly about their mental health problems. Would anybody question how mentally tough they are!?

When I retired from professional rugby in 2019, I started a PhD in Psychiatry, with a specific focus on the mental health of athletes and how this relates to and impacts performance. The stigma surrounding mental health is slowly being broken down but our understanding of the subject, particularly how it effects athletes, is still in the early days. The links between mental health and sporting performance are not immediately obvious, but are slowly being uncovered. For example, if you’re a particularly anxious person, it’s likely that a small part of your brain called the Amygdala is over active. This brain region is responsible for threat detection – or famously: the fight-flight-freeze response. Feeling nervous before a competition is a natural part of being an athlete, but uncontrolled worry – called performance anxiety, can be detrimental to performance. An athlete suffering with anxiety in their general life is probably more likely to experience performance anxiety too, which could negatively affect their ability to achieve their best performance. Techniques such as controlled breathing, or meditation, not only reduce anxiety in the short term, but can alter neural pathways in the brain if practiced regularly, which may reduce anxiety and negative thinking in the long term.

The reason for this brief detour into neuroscience is to highlight how closely our mind and body is connected. Mental health awareness campaigns have done a huge amount of good, but to really improve things we need to raise our collective understanding of the issues that contribute to good or bad mental health and take responsibility for ourselves and those around us.