Back in 2014, former Carleton Ravens basketball player, Krista Van Slingerland, detailed her fall into a deep depression and self harm.
“The police interrupted my suicide attempt a few months later. I’m not sure I had the courage to actually go through with it, but I was desperate to make the hurt go away. The reaction of my friends and family, those who had loved me at my worst, served as a wake up call,” she wrote in a blog post.
She was unable to admit she needed help for her lack of “mental toughness” that is required to be a top athlete.
Today, Van Slingerland is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, where she has made mental health and sports her academic focus. She is also a co-founder of Canada’s first centre for mental health and sport with Natalie Durand-Bush, a professor in the School of Human Kinetics at uOttawa. The centre is made to help athletes that are struggling with mental illness.
Featured at the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sports are specialized mental health services for competitive and high-performance Canadian athletes and coaches, with a focus on both research and treatment. The centre is brought forward to recognize the unique challenges and pressures an athlete faces and comes during a growing movement to end stigma around mental health.
Aside from teaching at uOttawa, Durand-Bush has a private practice in sports psychology and counselling and has noticed an uptick in the frequency she’s seeing athletes and coaches facing mental health issues. Often, she sees children as young as eight that are involved in competitive sports at an early age and are seeking counselling to cope with their anxiety and other issues.
“Early specialization in sport is hurting our kids. By the time they are teenagers, they are burnt out.”
The centre opened on Sept. 7 and serves the mental health needs of high-level athletes with integrated care including psychiatrists, psychologist, and other specialists. While the focus for now is to treat athletes and coaches over 16 that compete provincially or higher, treatment for younger athletes will likely also come in due time, said Durand-Bush.
“We wanted to provide a safe haven (for athletes) to be able to access services quickly that are really sports-centred. All practitioners either have a sports background or experience working in their own practice. That is what makes it unique.”
Luke Richardson is also familiar with mental health ailments, as his daughter, Daron, committed suicide as a teenager, prompting him and his wife to found an organization called ‘Do It For Daron’. Now an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens, Richardson is impressed with the concept of the clinic.
“Especially in sports, people think they are physically tough and can withstand a lot of excruciating exercise and pain. Well, that is different from mental stress. It is a tough, fast world right now, and I think the more support the better,” he said. “It just seems that if we are going to ask people to talk about it, I think we have to offer services. This is a step in the right direction.”
In addition to the integrated care, the centre will feature an “adopt an athlete” program that raises money to help cover the costs for athletes and coaches that may not be able to afford the pay-for-service program.
Van Slingerland said if such services were offered in a centre like this when she was struggling, “I think it would have encouraged me to seek support sooner.”
Thomas Hall, who won bronze in the C-1 1,000-metre canoe race at the Beijing Olympics, said the centre would have helped him when he struggled with his departure from the sport.
Like many athletes, Hall had a difficult time leaving the sport he loved and transitioning to a life out of sports. Hall, who’s since written about his struggles, serves as national manager for Game Plan, a collaborative program run by the Canadian Olympic Committee, Sport Canada, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, and the Sport Institute Network that focuses on helping athletes transition out of sports.
Hall said there is increased awareness of the many transitions athletes experience that include injuries, changes within their sport, and retirement. They can be extremely difficult. Hall’s work overlaps with some of the services offered at the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sports.
“It comes at a really opportune time.”
While athletes such that this clinic will focus on have specialized needs and circumstances, Richardson suggested that the issue is bigger than athletes and access to treatment goes beyond sport.
“Sports can magnify things in a good and a bad way. Hopefully, this does it in a good way to get some more government funding and create more spaces like this. If it can get some legs and traction, it should be everywhere.”