By: Celia Bildfell
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, mainstream media was beginning to present an open dialogue surrounding mental health. Post-pandemic, mental health and access to mental health services have become among the most talked about topics in both the media and everyday life. Sports, whether professional or collegiate, remain one of the most watched and discussed topics in both the media and everyday life. Despite the mutual popularity of these two topics, mental health and sports tend to not be discussed or considered in conjunction with one another. Do athletes not have mental health and need access to mental health services too?
“Stigma is still there for mental health in general. But there's been a lot of advocacy campaigns that have been put out there, that I think are pretty helpful for that,” says Dr. Michelle Mathias, a psychiatrist and mental performance coach based out of the Carleton Sports Medicine Clinic. Dr. Mathias works as a sports psychiatrist with Carleton’s varsity athletes as well as the Ottawa 67s of the OHL, the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks, the National Women’s Para Hockey team and varsity athletes from the University of Ottawa. She likes to say, “All athletes. All the time.”
Dr. Mathias describes the challenges facing athletes when it comes to discussing and treating their mental health. “Within the sport world, it's still a little bit different, because there's this thinking that athletes are tough. Athletes are strong, they're capable people because they do all of these things plus their sport. But at the end of the day, athletes are still people.”
Sports Psychiatry is an underrepresented yet growing field. It is the medical specialty that provides mental health services to athletes. Considering how prevalent sports are within a society, it is concerning that sports psychiatry is such an underserviced domain. One of the largest problems facing sports psychiatry is the lack of awareness and advocacy for its role within professional and non-professional sports.
“It's good to get the word out there that there are these services so that people can feel more comfortable and know that it's here. And a lot of people use the services. A lot,” continues Dr. Mathias.
With her Masters in Sport Psychology, Mathias tries to broaden her reach to athletes by highlighting that her practice involves assisting with athletes’ mental performance. “I think within the athlete world, in the sports world, mental performance is a lot more recognized and accepted.”
Dr. Mathias approaches sports psychiatry with the perspective that athletes, like everyone else, have external stressors and factors that can contribute to both their mental health and athletic performance. Dr. Mathias describes how she considers how many patients she should have on average. “My perspective is that athletes are a subpopulation of our whole population. If we know that mental health affects 25-30% of people, then I should be expecting to see 25- 30% of athletes.”
Carleton has the resources to help the 25 - 30 % of athletes who require access to mental health services, however, most Canadian universities do not. Carleton is one of few universities in Canada to have a full-time psychiatrist dedicated to their varsity athletes.
Dr. Mathias is one of less than ten members of the Canadian Association of Sports Psychiatry, and one of few who practices it full-time. Through her work with the Carleton Sports Medicine Clinic, she promotes access to her services by making herself available and accessible to the athletes however she can.
“My ideal is that it would be great for all the players, if they see me on the sidelines, and think, oh, there's Doc M, that’s a familiar face. And so that then if they're struggling, it's less ambiguous about who they're going to see or what that experience is going to be like.”
Last year Dr. Mathias gave a presentation to the incoming athletes outlining her services and what’s accessible to the athletes so they can be aware of who to go to when they need help. Through her work in conjunction with the Carleton Sport Medicine Clinic, as well as with the varsity teams, Dr. Mathias hopes to advocate for athletes’ mental health by destigmatizing the conversation surrounding mental health within the sports world.
“I think it's going to take a while. I think part of it is athletes need to feel comfortable coming for it. I think it's getting a lot better. We will get there.”