Aussie Olympians at centre of stark new mental health reality

Some of Australia's Olympic Games athletes show off the new uniforms during a March unveiling.
Mental health is a huge issue facing Australia's Olympic team before the Tokyo Games later this year. Pic: Getty

In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, demand from elite athletes and staff for mental health support has increased almost 80 per cent on the same period last year.

The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) revealed a huge spike in requests for assistance from its Mental Health Referral Network (MHRN) at the start of 2021 compared to the same period a year ago.

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The impact of COVID-19 was the primary or secondary issue in about 80 per cent of the referrals.

AIS boss Peter Conde said the delay to the Olympics and continuing uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo Games, which areset to get under way in late July, has caused anxiety for some.

"It has been an extended wait for these Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and excitement is no doubt building as the Games countdown continues," Conde said in a statement.

"It's natural, however, that there will also be anxiety given the unique and complex preparation for these Games as well as the shifting environments here and abroad."

Seen here, members of Australia's Olympic team show off the country's new uniforms.
Members of Australia's Olympic team showed off the country's new uniforms at an unveiling in March. Pic: Getty

Mental health awareness on the rise

Conde wasn't alarmed by the rise in demand but attributed to the growing awareness of the service, with some sports and teams adopting it as a regular check-in.

The MHRN has a national network of mental health practitioners and is available to almost 3000 people in Australian high-performance sport including athletes, coaches, support staff and even family of athletes.

The AIS has also funded and embedded more than 30 athlete wellbeing and engagement managers in national sporting organisations to directly support athletes.

Jodie Henry, who won three swimming Olympics gold medals at in Athens in 2004, holds the role within her former sport.

Henry said it was understandable for athletes to feel anxious ahead of any Games, but Tokyo would have unique challenges.

"There's a lot of unknowns and that's going to be the biggest challenge of these Games," she said.

"But there is support and one of the encouraging things I've noticed in this role is the openness of current athletes to discuss their feelings.

"Talking to someone can make all the difference."

Watch 'Mind Games', the new series from Yahoo Sport Australia exploring the often brutal mental toil elite athletes go through in pursuit of greatness:

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