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Mental health and sport project launches resource hub featuring Olympian ambassadors

The National Mental Health and Sport project, funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, aims to support the mental health of athletes affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project launched Resource Hub, a free online portal that provides tools and information to reduce mental health stigma.

It will also help trainers understand the importance of mental health literacy through modules and articles. The goal is to make mental health resources more accessible to rural and indigenous communities across Canada.

“Having resources is not easy to come by, especially in smaller communities. I’ve dealt with mental health issues myself, so it was a really good project to have something like this, especially for coaches who don’t have that kind of experience,” said figure skating coach Rhys McAlpine.

McAlpine is one of the program’s ambassadors. He runs the RedPine Skating School in Ochapowace First Nation and the Whitewood Skating Club. He was also the skating coach representing Saskatchewan for the Aboriginal Apprentice Coach Program at the 2023 Canadian Winter Games.

“I’m basically just here to help spread the message to the coaches. I’m really trying to encourage you to know that this is for everyone. It’s free, it’s really easy to use. You can use it on your phone, at home on the couch, just go there and search. There are many articles, videos, infographics. It’s a really good resource,” he explained.

The program is packed with high profile ambassadors such as:

  • Max Parrot, three-time Olympic champion
  • Jillian Officer, decorated Olympic curler
  • Bev Priestman, head coach of the women’s national soccer team
  • Robin McKeever, Head Coach of the Canadian Cross-Country Olympic Team
  • Steve Lennon, RMC Men’s Volleyball Coach and 22-year Canadian Forces Veteran
  • Damian Warner, decathlete and Olympic champion
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They are among many other Canadian Ambassadors who have joined the Mental Health and Sport program.

“I’ve been through a lot of competitions with coaches, ups and downs, so I understand the importance a coach can have in an athlete’s life, from a physical point of view but also from a mental point of view,” Warner said of the reason he became an ambassador.

“Anytime someone like the CAC [Coaching Association of Canada] will come together and give the coaches more resources or more opportunities to get better and be able to help their athletes, I’m all for that,” he added.

Warner went on to explain how his two different Olympic experiences helped him realize the importance of taking care of his mental health as an athlete.

“When I went to the Olympics in 2016, I had really high expectations. I wanted to win a gold medal and I thought I was physically ready to win gold. I went there and fell short. It seems kinda strange because I could still finish on the podium and win bronze. But for athletes it can be very devastating when we have a lot of expectations of ourselves.”

“I started working with a sports psychologist and it’s only now that I realized that maybe I had the physical makings to win a gold medal, but there’s also the mental side of things. I put myself in a position where I was physically, mentally and emotionally ready to go out and win a gold medal and I was able to do that at the Olympics that followed [Tokyo 2020].”

The project has also sought the work of numerous mental health, sport and COVID-19 experts.

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Jennifer Misurelli, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, is the project leader for the Canadian Center for Mental Health and Sport’s virtual workshops.

“Our organization is responsible for the work we design, and we run three different mental health literacy workshops specifically for trainers across the country,” explained Misurelli.

As part of her PhD, she helped create three virtual workshops on ZOOM that trainers can attend for free for a year.

“Mental health has always needed to be spoken about, but I think COVID-19 is really shedding light on a lot of areas where we just need to improve the narratives and conversations that we have about mental health and exercise,” Misurelli said.

Some key areas that the project will focus on are remote areas, indigenous peoples, newcomers to Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces.

“I think it’s about availability. The need is definitely there [for these areas] but access may not. I think it’s a really good way to understand how mental health is translated differently depending on culture or organization,” she said.

“Every year 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems; Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is now 1 in 3,” the Coaching Association of Canada said in a press release.

“Research has shown that coaches and athletic leaders at all levels across the country play a critical role in helping participants return to the sport across Canada.”

“We’ve had some athletes leave our club because of COVID-19 and it’s impacted a lot of people. Obviously it’s a global pandemic, but it’s specific to the kids in my area. We have a lot of Indigenous communities around us and they went to school online and some of them didn’t come back,” McAlpine explained.

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“Especially in the indigenous communities where they don’t have as much access as other communities, having something like that will really help.”

The Mental Health Hub and Resources can be accessed here.

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