Answers to questions
In July 2017 I left my role as CEO of the British Athletes Commission (BAC). I was ill. Two months earlier I had been diagnosed with severe anxiety, stress and depression. In short, I was burnt out. I sought psychotherapy, initially because my self-esteem and confidence were non-existent, and I wanted someone to give me some answers.
The first answer I got was that it was no wonder I was mentally ill because “you have had five years of vicarious trauma”. This was the result of offering advice, support and guidance to many Olympic and Paralympic athletes - often under very pressurised circumstances. To my surprise the other answers eventually actually came from myself as the therapy sessions continued and I started to recover.
However, something else was triggered in my mind when I returned to work briefly in July 2017, and I started to tell other people why I had been off. I didn’t hide behind some spurious contagious illness or a physical injury, Instead, I was honest - it was because of a mental illness.
The advantages of being open
The result was surprising and a game changer for me. Pretty much everyone I told said something like “I know a lot of people like you” or “I have to drink several pints each day to cope.” Perhaps more tellingly others said, “I know exactly how you feel I’m taking X mgs of anti-depressants a day.”
Firstly, this made me feel not such a loser as I was very clearly not the only one in sport struggling with mental illness. But I also realised that something needed to be done. In August 2017 I spent a lot of time thinking about “what next?” I had a choice, should I walk away from sport or try and stay involved in some capacity?
Take and give care
Conversations with other leaders in sport had left their mark. The question in my mind now was - if the issue of athlete welfare is beginning to be taken (more) seriously, who is looking after the people responsible for looking after the athletes?
I took inspiration from Professor David Lavallee – the first ever Professor of Duty of Care in sport at Abertay University. David was one of a few people who reached out to me when I was ill, always ending his conversation with the phrase “Give and take care”. I loved this phrase, because it gave me a connection with another person. In fact, I love the phrase so much I have adopted it as my personal and business strapline, but with a twist: “Take and give care”.
This also reflects my new understanding that it is essential to take care of myself before being able to give care to others.
Why I signed up for a Mental Health First Aid course
After much deliberation I took the plunge and set up DOCIAsport. One of the first things that I did after starting DOCIAsport was sign up for a Mental Health First Aid England course. I wanted to do this for a number of reasons;
· To be able to reflect on the advice I had given to many athletes who were suffering mental illness to check whether I had done the right thing. I understand now that the best thing that I did was that I actively listened to all of them without judgement. So many said they felt better just because they felt that they had been listened to properly.
· Being a MHFA England trained First Aider would give some peace of mind to the people I’d meet for the first time in this next “chapter” of my work.
· What I now realise in hindsight too is that the course gave me boundaries that I shouldn’t cross in helping others. Instead I am able to signpost them with confidence to better support than I can offer. This also reduces the risk of my own mental health declining again.
MHFA course specifically for the sport sector
I was then introduced to Jaan Madan a member of the Leadership team at MHFA England. He very kindly agreed to offer a collaboration between DOCIAsport and MHFA England to set up a Mental Health First Aiders course specifically for the sport sector.
I was determined that the case studies required for the course would come from across the sport sector – performance and recreational sport and from those both on and off the field of play. We had coaches, administrators, athletes and a referee offer to help. What incredible people they are giving of their time for no fee to share their lived experiences for the ultimate benefit of others.
It became clear to me that it isn’t easy to pigeon hole mental illness. In many cases there is more than one condition causing an individual’s mental illness. Furthermore, a lived experience is just that and it’s unique to any one individual.
The sports course is scheduled to be available in the summer of 2019, by which time I hope to have become an instructor, so that I can work with others to deliver it.
With more trained Mental Health First Aiders in sport, I genuinely believe that the sector will be better equipped to address mental illness in its various forms for those that work in the sector. To take and give care.
Who is looking after the people looking after the people?
The truth is that we all have a duty of care to ourselvesand our own wellbeing. I discovered that I was poor at this at a great cost and ended up in a very dark place as a consequence.
With the help of my psychotherapist, I started to devise a series of relapse prevention strategies. Nearly two years later, they remain hard to apply, but I am trying! I have started to recognise that taking time off is an integral part of the whole. Just before I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I believed that things were beginning to overwhelm me because I wasn’t working hard enough. My answer was to “work” even harder i.e., longer not better. Just not big or clever.
Achieving perfect imbalance
I have come to realise that its ok to be completely dedicated to a period of work with little or no play, but that it is not sustainable. I have started to break this down into different sized pieces. In any one day have meaningful breaks. In the evenings try to avoid tech, at the weekends have a technology amnesty on at least one day. There’s therefore an attempt to achieve perfect imbalance over different time horizons.
After periods of great intensity, I have tried to adopt a new strategy on some weekends after an “imbalanced” week. Do nothing. This can cause a bit of tension with my wife so, like all things with regard to managing my mental health, it remains a work in progress. The good news is that I’m no longer on my own.
Take and give care.
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