Under the surface

When we think of elite athletes, what comes to mind is someone at the top of their game. To be at the peak of health and performance, and to achieve success and public admiration at a young age, is something that most people would consider desirable.

What goes on under the surface of such achievement has not gotten as much attention – until now. The 2011 deaths of three professional hockey players – two by suicide, and one by drug overdose – were one of several factors leading Canadian Mental Health Association – Kelowna Branch staff to develop a new kind of education and prevention program.

The “Balance Points” project targets developing athletes, along with their parents, teachers and coaches. The innovative, multi-pronged mental health literacy program seeks to address the hidden connections between mental health and athletic performance.

In order to develop the program, CMHA staff first had to delve into those connections and seek to understand them.

When they asked local coaches across a number of sports whether they felt this was a relevant issue in our community, the response was “without a doubt, yes.”

The examples and statistics that they found were startling.

They heard about what it was like to lose a race by a fraction of a second, or be put out of the game by a serious injury, after working relentlessly toward a goal over many years.

They heard about what it is like to have your body on public display all the time, as is the case for figure skaters, dancers and gymnasts.

Most importantly, they learned that depression, anxiety and eating disorders affect elite athletes at significantly higher rates than the rest of the population. The numbers vary by type of sport, but they are all cause for concern.

For example, did you know that eating disorders occur twice as frequently for boys in combat sports compared to boys in the general population?

The facts are startling, but there is much that can be done to improve the situation. Early detection and intervention in problems are crucial. Balance Points seeks to create awareness of local resources, reduce fear and stigma, and increase conversations.

“The earlier the intervention, the greater the outcome,” says Candace Giesbrecht, Director of Promotion and Development for CMHA – Kelowna Branch. “Our definition of success is that, when the waves of life hit you, you’re able to ride them without drowning.”

The mental health challenges that athletes face are among the areas of awareness that will be brought forward during Mental Health Week, May 7-13. Did you know that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience some mental health issue serious enough to require treatment this year? That’s 36,000 people in Kelowna; enough to fill Prospera Place 4.5 times (based on concert seating).

All of us are affected by these facts, and change begins with us. Mental health professionals are asking the right questions, and helping us all to understand the answers.

The Canadian Mental Health Association – Kelowna Branch is a United Way Community Partner Agency. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at http://kelowna.cmha.bc.ca/ , signing up for their newsletter, “liking” them on Facebook, or following them on Twitter.

To find out how you can be part of change, visit http://unitedwaycso.com/.

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About the Author

The mission of United Way is to improve lives and build community by engaging individuals and mobilizing collective action.

We call this our Community Impact Mission. Community impact is about achieving meaningful, long-term improvements to the quality of life in Canadian communities, by addressing not just the symptoms of problems but also getting at the root causes. It’s about making fundamental changes to community conditions.

United Way is achieving this mission by moving people from poverty to possibility, promoting healthy people and strong communities, and supporting all that kids can be.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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