Belfast Telegraph

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson: British sport can learn plenty about mental health

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson believes British sport still has much to learn in terms of mental health and is "incredibly lucky" to have not had more cases like Aaron Lennon's.

The Everton winger was detained under the Mental Health Act on Sunday and is currently receiving treatment for a stress-related illness.

Grey-Thompson, 47, has recently written a wide-ranging report on athlete welfare for the government and has made several recommendations on how governing bodies and teams can improve their duty of care.

Speaking at the Sport Resolutions annual conference in London, the 11-time Paralympic champion said: "We're incredibly lucky that we haven't had more dramatic and traumatic experiences with mental illness.

"There has been one this week but we're lucky there hasn't been more."

Grey-Thompson explained that some of what she had discovered while researching her report had been "personally challenging" as she found numerous examples of bullying and harassment, as well as widespread ignorance of the importance of good welfare practices.

However, Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) assistant chief executive Simon Barker told Press Association Sport that football had already improved its awareness and treatment of mental health issues after the death of Gary Speed and several other high-profile cases.

Barker said the PFA now has a network of 90 counsellors around the country and they dealt with more than 160 cases last year.

Also speaking at the conference was former Great Britain swimmer Michael Jamieson, who retired from the sport earlier this year after a series of injuries and bouts of depression.

Speaking to PA Sport, the 28-year-old Scot said he felt "a lot of emotion" reading about Lennon's case as he could relate to the pressures associated with being a Premier League player.

Jamieson, who won a silver medal in the 200 metres breaststroke at London 2012, said: "Mental illness does not discriminate - it can hit anybody, in any walk of life - and it does not care if you are rich or poor.

"But if you are involved in elite sport you are inevitably going to be putting yourself in a stressful and demanding environment.

"We don't need to mollycoddle athletes - we love what we do - but there does need to be an acceptance of that risk.

"But the other part of it is emotional intelligence. A lot of athletes don't have those skills and struggle when things get difficult. They also tend to think that their problems are normal - I did.

"It was only when my depression grew arms and legs and became a real problem that I got help.

"Why aren't we all taught this stuff at school? We learn history, modern languages, science but do very little to train the brain. I would like to see mindfulness on the curriculum and I think it will be one day."

Jamieson added that he was surprised how much support he got once he asked for it and believes Lennon will experience that too.

The reaction from the football world has certainly been encouraging, with former Premier League striker Andy Johnson tweeting he will donate 10p for every retweet of his message of support - a pledge that has now passed £12,000.

Earlier on Thursday, Lennon's manager Ronald Koeman told reporters he hoped Lennon will be back in his squad soon - but only when the 30-year-old is ready.

The Dutchman said: " We try to give him all the support (to enable) him to come back as soon as possible.

"We have contact with him and his family and I think it is best we keep it inside between club, the player and his family.

"We would like to see him back but what is important now is for him to be like he was. Life, health, is more important than football."

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