How Male Elite Athletes Help Change the Stigma around Men’s Health Issues

As our attention gets drawn towards Men’s Health week,  it is worth exploring the current landscape of well-being and mental health for men in Australia. Despite many campaigns directed at men’s mental health and huge efforts to reduce the stigma, Australian men still seem to struggle to reach out for help. Undeniably, men are significantly less likely to seek help, treatment or talk to others about their struggles compared to women. The reasoning for this would strongly point towards traditional masculinity biases. It could be suggested men have been socially conditioned from a young age to fit into a particular narrative of what it means to be a “real man.”  Emotions are not commonly acknowledged and are perceived as a sign of weakness.

Needless to say the associated risks for men struggling with health and wellbeing issues are very high. There have been alarming reports in Australia that indicate an average of six men per day regularly commit suicide. Knowing this, what can we see on the horizon that may provide a possible avenue to change this stigma and improve the narrative around this problem?

Professional Sports and its elite athletes play a big part in the daily fabric of Australian culture, especially with the male population. It’s always been an escape for the working class man seeing his dreams lived through the heroics of his sporting idols. But In recent times, this perceived perfect world has received a dose of reality served up by its own stars. Many athletes here in Australia, and around the world, have bravely moved towards a more open dialogue acknowledging their own vulnerabilities around mental health issues in a bid to promote awareness. Over the last few years many elite male sporting legends have decided to share their stories of their on-going struggles and challenges with mental health. Many of their stories revolve around the psychological burden of being in the media spotlight 24/7 and being constantly judged on performance on and off the field of play.  

Stories and revelations from various male stars, such as Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe, AFL stars Barry Hall and Buddy Franklin, NRL stars Joel Thompson, Darius Boyd and Greg Inglis, have all helped to inspire many others to step forward, speak up and educate a wider audience not fear the negative connotations surrounding mental health. Similarly, in the United States many prominent athletes are now using their celebrity status to actively promote men’s mental health awareness. Michael Phelps, together with NBA stars DeMar DeRozan, and Kevin Love all recently shattered the fallacy that these high achievers are indestructible. They all admitted their biggest battles with success were faced away from the competitive arenas. DeRozan commented in detail on his struggles with depression, while Love described is on-going fight with panic attacks. It serves to highlight that success, achievement, and wealth do not limit the risk of developing mental health issues.  

Sport has always been a vehicle for societal change. Therefore, these courageous shared stories from high-achieving male athletes have helped improve the visibility of mental health on a global scale. Hopefully, it may represent a broader cultural change in how men view mental health. Previously, there seems to have been a distorted view that has caused male individuals to struggle and feel confused, isolated, and embarrassed with their condition. We now look to a future where all individuals are empowered, do not suffer in silence and reach out for help when they need it. Hopefully, the efforts of people speaking out will go a long way to breaking the stigma and reducing the mental health toll.

If you have a view around this topic please feel free to share. Alternatively, if you feel you need help and someone to listen please reach out. I am a qualified counsellor with experience in this area.  

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