It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The campaign, launched by the Mental Health Foundation, reaches millions of people every year. The Foundation drives change towards a mentally healthy society for all, and supports communities, families and individuals to live mentally healthier lives, with a particular focus on those at greatest risk. This year’s campaign theme is kindness.
There are many demands associated with high-performance sport as athletes strive to reach the top and be the best that they can be. Over recent years there has been a wider acknowledgement of the impact this can have on mental health as more athletes willingly share their own experiences publicly and therefore shine a spotlight on the challenges they and many others have faced.
Paralympic gold medallist Danny Crates, who is a long-standing ambassador of SportsAid, has written a two-part blog on his own relationship with mental health. Here, in the first instalment, Danny reflects on coming to terms with a life-changing car crash, starting para athletics, the emotions he experienced at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, and the feeling of finishing an important race.
“I never aspired to be a Paralympian, nor an athlete at all. I took part in athletics and rugby when I was younger but stopped running at 16. I was a trained engineer at 20 but when work dried up, I went to Australia - and it was there where my life changed.
“One week before coming home, I was involved in a serious car crash and lost my right arm. But instead of acknowledging the situation, I did what many people do - pretend it hasn’t happened and ignore the problem. For the first six months, I had nothing to do. I’d walk into town, buy lunch and a scratch-card, come home and hope I’d win just so I could go and exchange it for something to do.
“Within six months of the accident, I was back playing full-contact, able-bodied rugby but I knew training wasn’t enough for me. We didn't know how it would go but it was about trying it out - and that was an important part of the mental health journey I was going on. Six months later I was back on the pitch properly - and I never looked back. The realisation I could carry on with dreams and aspirations began my new life.
“Acknowledging the accident was still a struggle. I went to a limb-fitting centre, was given a prosthetic and shoved it in the wardrobe without wearing it. There was also a psychologist there, and it became a running joke that she’d chase me around because I refused a conversation. There were lots of reasons for that. Men didn't admit many problems 20 years ago, you can see you were struggling and I was in denial, trying to carry on as normal.
“Knowing what I know now, if anything would happen again, I would 100% seek professional help. I wouldn’t wait until needing it, I would acknowledge that trauma and that it's good to have someone help process the difficulties. At the time, I said I had no problems. But when you look back, you'd see I struggled coping and I was lucky it didn't become too serious.
“One of my rugby games gained a lot of coverage, and from there I was contacted by British Athletics, who invited me to meet some Atlanta 1996 Paralympians - which sparked my return to the sport. They made me realise that Paralympic sport isn't a give-it-a-go activity because you've got a disability and nothing to do. Since 10 or 11, I wanted an international vest and now I had a chance to achieve this dream - I had something to work towards, and I reached my first World Championships in 1998.
“I came eighth and got the vest but, having seen the guys on the podium enjoy themselves, I didn’t want to stop there. Training brought with it a routine which was so important to me, I had a focus, an aim and my mental health benefited from that. We all know how hard it is to motivate yourself, especially with the country currently in lockdown, so it’s about having something to work towards.
“You go on a journey as an international athlete, the pressures and expectations, the dreams and aspirations, and the fact that you might not achieve them every time. Winners don't always win, underdogs come through, so you have to deal with highs and lows. You put so much into each dream and aspiration, whether it’s a gold medal or to make the team, everything goes into that, including your mental health.
“As an athlete, I had to learn to lose a lot of races to be able to win them. At the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, I won a 400m bronze medal - but I was disappointed with how I ran instead of celebrating the achievement. I was chasing a world record but made a few mistakes and wasn’t focused enough. That’s not to mean I didn’t care, I just couldn’t get the focus in the race.
“People were excited about a medal at my first Paralympics, so you have to put on that fake face, where on the inside you're broken but on the outside you have to be really happy. All I could think about was losing the gold. At Athens 2004, there were 10 days between the start of the Games and my 800m event, so you're out there seeing teammates win and feeling elated, or losing and feeling that their whole world has collapsed. There’s so much emotion involved.
“The difference between Sydney and Athens was that pin-point focus. I was so ready to race, my coach had got me in not only the best physical position, but the best mental one. If you're not there mentally, you're not going to deliver. That's something we'd worked on after missing out in Sydney. I won gold in Athens and when I crossed the line, it was more relief than jubilation. After seven years of hard work, I’d done it.
“It's a very strange feeling. You can prepare for every aspect of a race, everything is planned to the minute detail, except the feeling of finishing. I went over to friends and family but you can't get to them because they're the other side of a barrier. So I felt a little lost. You can't prepare for the aftermath, it's a blur. It takes a long time to get over the bad experiences but it also takes time getting your head around the good moments as well.
“That’s where the mental strength becomes vital. You want to keep level-headed, never beating yourself up about the lows or getting too celebratory with the highs. As soon as I finished that race, it was on to the next session - but I wouldn’t have got there if we hadn’t made sure that my mental health was the best it could be.”
The second instalment of Danny’s blog will be released on Friday (22 May). He talks about the highs and lows of Beijing 2008, retiring from para athletics and the transition out of sport.
SportsAid is proudly working alongside BelievePerform to help athletes build positive mental health habits while also offering support and guidance to their parents and guardians. BelievePerform provides access to a range of applied and practical resources including online courses and training plans. Videos, articles, podcasts and infographics are also available.