Ottawa

New centre gives elite athletes the tailored mental health support they need

A new centre for high-level athletes and coaches has opened in Ottawa, recognizing the link between mental health and elite physical performance.

'Win at all costs' environment of high-level sport not best suited to mental wellness, centre co-founder says

The Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport aims to provide high-level athletes with mental health supports suited to their unique needs. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

A new centre for high-level athletes and coaches has opened in Ottawa, recognizing the link between mental health and elite physical performance.

The Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport tries to address something people might not think about — that the nature of high-level sport can sometimes contribute to mental strain in athletes.

Krista Van Slingerland, a PhD candidate and one of the centre's co-founders, said her own struggles with mental health as an elite basketball player pushed her to help start the centre.

"It's 'win at all costs,' and that doesn't really mix with being mentally healthy," Van Slingerland said.

A new centre for high-level athletes and coaches has opened in Ottawa, recognizing the link between mental health and elite physical performance. 0:40

Second in the world

Ottawa's new centre — headquartered at the House of Sport at the RA Centre on Riverside Drive — bills itself as the second in the world dedicated specifically to supporting athletes with mental health issues, and the first in Canada.

The first opened in Sweden in 2015, so the team behind Ottawa's centre turned to Joran Kentta, head of sport psychology at the Swedish Sport Confederation, for guidance.

Natalie Durand-Bush, left, and Krista Van Slingerland, right, co-founded the centre. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

Mental health strain among athletes has been largely overlooked, Kentta said.

"In order to have a sustainable elite career, you need to deal with any problem that occurs, whether it's depression, anxiety disorder, or an injury," he said.

Some stress unique to athletes

Athletes face a number of stressors regular folks don't contend with, such as the possibility of being cut from a team and competing on national and international stages, said Natalie Durand-Bush, a University of Ottawa professor of sport psychology and another co-founder of the centre.

And sometimes, "they're too scared to come out and admit that they have these challenges because they don't want to lose their spot on the team, they don't want to lose their funding," she added.

Van Slingerland said her struggles with mental health began in her second year of playing basketball at the University of Ottawa, with the onset of depression and anxiety. 

And because athletes are often expected to play through physical injuries, she wondered what kind of reaction she'd get if she came forward with her struggles.

"How are my coaches and teammates going to respond to an injury they couldn't even see?" 

She sought help, but found that many mental health professionals didn't understand how intertwined her role as an athlete was with her identity, and ended up leaving the sport.

Higher rate of eating disorders

In Sweden, Kentta said he found that athletes struggle with eating disorders at nearly three times the rate of average people.

To deal with this in Ottawa, the centre is staffed by psychologists who take sport-related factors into consideration when developing care plans.

For now the centre is keeping admissions low to avoid overwhelming their resources. Athletes must be 16 or older, be playing a provincial-level sport in Canada, and have a mental health condition that affects their performance. 

High-level coaches, often coping with extreme pressure for their teams to succeed, can access services as well.