Minding others’ mental health
More can be done for athletes' mental wellness, says jiu-jitsu champion Lien, as psychologists weigh in
Singapore's jiu-jitsu exponent Constance Lien hopes that more can be done to raise awareness of mental health among the sporting fraternity by "coming up with more campaigns to allow athletes to speak up about their stories".
A strong advocate for mental health awareness, Lien applauded tennis star Naomi Osaka's bravery on her recent withdrawal from the French Open over her mental well-being.
"Having an elite athlete pull out of a competition because of mental health reasons might be viewed by some to be weak, but I think it is so brave as it shows what she prioritises," Lien, a multiple-medal winner, told The New Paper.
"Sometimes as athletes we chase achievements and people forget we are human and have a life outside of sports."
Lien, 22, added that she started advocating for mental health awareness after clinching a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games and was surprised to see people inspired by her story.
The self-described perfectionist, who clinched the blue-belt featherweight title at the World International Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Championships and a SEA Games gold in 2019, previously told TNP that she had been weighed down by expectations.
Since her surprise Asian Games silver in 2018 - which saw her win the Sportsgirl of the Year accolade at the 2019 Singapore Sports Awards - she had been working on her own campaign, Leading Hearts.
It is aimed at building a safe environment for athletes to share their struggles and be unafraid to show vulnerability.
"It is very important for them to realise they are not alone and many of them are going through similar experiences,"she added.
She hopes her initiative will help more people view athlete development holistically, to include their mental and emotional health as well.
ActiveSG Football Academy principal Aleksandar Duric echoed her sentiments and about the importance of a safe environment for athletes to share their emotions.
"I believe that we all need to face the fact that mental health is an important part of a sportsman's life and should be dealt with properly with the help from psychologists or counsellors," the ex-national footballer said.
Duric, 50, added that he struggled with mental health during his professional career and can empathise with athletes facing those problems.
While it may be common for athletes to encounter mental health struggles, they may be reluctant to talk about it due to the stigma attached.
This can be due to the expectations placed on athletes by themselves and society, said Singapore University of Social Sciences' head of psychology programme Emily Ortega.
"Athletes are expected to be mentally and physically tough, like superheroes, but they are certainly not void of emotions," she said.
She added that these expectations, along with performance stress and dealing with comments from critics, were the main drivers of the stigmatisation within the sporting fraternity.
Despite this, Ortega has handled cases where athletes who were struggling with mental disorders managed to turn things around.
"I was roped in to intervene and helped the athlete wean off the medication gradually so that training could resume, while still engaging in talk therapy to check in and make sure the athlete was coping well," she said.
The athlete went from almost quitting to winning a SEA Games gold medal.
While national agency Sport Singapore said that it has been taking a pre-emptive approach by proactively screening national athletes for mental health concerns, others feel that the fraternity should also be on the lookout.
Kimberly Chew, a psychologist from Annabelle Psychology, said that athletes are not the only ones who should be educated on mental wellness, but their coaches and family members should be informed as well.
This includes knowing the signs of mental health conditions that they should look out for and encouraging athletes to seek professional help when necessary.
Some signs to note are rapid shifts in mood, social withdrawal, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, sleep loss and appetite changes.