Tuesday 10th October is World Mental Health Day. Here, Sport NI Chief Executive Antoinette McKeown discusses the power of sport to promote good mental health, and the role the local sporting workforce can play in providing support to those who need it.

Antoinette McKeown

Today marks World Mental Health Day 2017. In recent years, much progress has been made in challenging unhelpful attitudes and stigmas which prevent more open discussion of mental health. From medical experts and political leaders to celebrities and sporting stars, there is definitely greater openness and understanding of the importance of looking after our mental health, and the mental health of those around us.

I have a great sense of pride in the knowledge that Sport Northern Ireland’s work continues to promote mental health and wellbeing through and within sport. Sport NI devotes much resource to helping people get active and stay active, sustaining health and wellbeing throughout their lives. Sport has tremendous power to promote mental health within local communities – it offers opportunities for improving physical health and fitness which, of course, helps to promote mental health. More than that, though, sport provides a wonderful way to socialise with others, to develop the friendships and personal networks that can be absolutely essential during the challenging periods in our lives.

Sport also offers a means by which we can challenge ourselves and build our personal resilience. Elite athletes are a perfect example of the way in which the resolve and determination to push through physical and mental barriers helps people to break records, enjoy success and achieve personal ambitions. However, it’s important to acknowledge there is a balance to be met in challenging ourselves and others to be the best we can be while recognising the duty of care we have to each other as we deliver in communities, in clubs and at world class level.

This year’s World Mental Health Day theme is ‘mental health in the work place’, and in keeping with that idea, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the great work being done by our local sporting workforce. It is the coaches, volunteers, administrators and other staff who not only make sport happen day-in day-out, but who lead the way in creating a positive and nurturing environment for us all to enjoy, engage and excel in sport, particularly our young people.

Sport NI us also mindful of our workforce and we are currently undertaking work to develop our own awareness of employee needs, including progress towards wellbeing accreditation. We recognise the critical role we all have to play in maintaining health and wellbeing for all.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental illness at some point in our lives. Issues may include – depression, addictions (drinking, gambling, drugs), stress, bi-polar and suicide. It is also estimated that 10% of young people in sport have self-harmed. However, people facing a personal challenge can recover with support.

It is important that we continue to be vigilant and sensitive to the mental health and wellbeing of athletes, staff and volunteers, and I would invite everyone to take today as an opportunity to reflect.

Providing safe spaces in sport and through sport, for everyone to talk about mental health and reach out to others when needed, is a commitment Sport NI makes today on World Mental Health Day – and I would appeal to all our partners to work with us to help achieve that.

I would also ask all members of the sporting workforce to consider if their club is a “listening club” for both young people and adults. It is important that all those involved in sport realise the importance of seeking help, particularly at a time of crisis, and so I would encourage everyone to do what you can to promote awareness of the Lifeline number / website to your adult members and Childline number / website to your youth members.

Childine contact info

Lifeline info

There are also steps which all of us can take to promote better wellbeing within our own lives:

Mental health and wellbeing poster

Sports clubs and organisations are already contributing to good mental wellbeing within local communities. It is vital that we as a sporting community continue to work together to break down barriers, build awareness and create more understanding and openness. There’s a famous Michael Jordan quote:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

I think this sums up the importance of persevering and working together, despite the challenges we face. Every small positive change we can make is still a change for the better, and it is this collective effort that will ensure that sport continues to be a force for good in promoting mental health and wellbeing.