THE ROLE OF LEGISLATION IN THE ADVANCEMENT/ PROTECTION OF THE MENTAL HEALTH OF ATHLETES IN NIGERIA (PRE – POST PROFESSIONAL CAREER)

INTRODUCTION 

Conversations surrounding issues of mental health and the welfare of individuals (especially athletes) have gained attention worldwide. Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of the mental health challenges faced by individuals and their inability to discuss, express themselves or even seek the required help. Recently, research carried out in the United States of America states that an estimated 52.9 million people suffer from one form of mental illness or the other [1]. On a micro level, this means that 1 in every 5 adults in the United States lives with a mental health condition[2]. While in Nigeria and Africa at large, there is no access to this sort of data, not to talk of the stigma that comes from seeking help for mental issues.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO);

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”[3]

Mental health has also been defined to include an individual’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It is said to affect how one thinks, feels, and acts and also helps determine how one handles stress, relates to others, and makes healthy choices.

[2]. This has raised discussions related to the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the industry.  

‘’For the business enterprise, sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining, and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future.’’

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[2] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[3] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

This article aims to highlight the key role legislation can play in the advancement/protection of the mental health of athletes, particularly in Nigeria. It also proposes frameworks that can be adopted by sports regulators to address mental health issues affecting Nigerian athletes (pre – post-athletic career).

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES FACED BY ATHLETES

Considering the many complexities of the sports industry and the available data on the variety of sports, leagues, team franchise and ownership structures, private and quasi-public regulatory and governance schemes, federations, committees, councils, and extensive commercial ventures, one could conclude that a disproportionate focus is placed on athletes’ physical health (money maker) at the expense of their mental health. 

A recent study of mental health in British elite athletes found a prevalence of anxiety/depression of 47.8% and signs of distress of 26.8%. In Australia, a mental health survey of athletes recorded a prevalence of 46.4% for athletes who experienced at least one symptom of the mental health disorder investigated. According to data from professional athletes in the United States, up to 35% of top athletes suffer from a mental health crisis, which can manifest themselves as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression, or anxiety. These statistics are quite damning for the global sports industry and call for increased focus and investment in the mental health of athletes. Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s refusal to submit to post-match press conferences at the 2021 French Open tournament, citing mental health issues and anxiety in facing the barrage of intense media questions is a case in point. Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps has also spoken about his struggles with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts during his professional career. The case of Justin Gatlin v. U.S. Anti-doping agency highlighted the issue of doping in the athletic community.

CAUSES OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES AFFECTING ATHLETES (PRE-POST PROFESSIONAL CAREER) GLOBALLY

Athletes (aspiring and professional) are often put under immense levels of stress as a result of the constant demand for excellence and desire for success. Relevant studies have revealed that some common stressors elite athletes face that leads to mental health issues include; 

  • failure to make it professionally, 
  • lack of proper education, 
  • overtraining,
  • performance expectations
  • lack of family support, 
  • injury, 
  • major negative life events, 
  • social media scrutiny, 
  • low social support, 
  • organizational factors (homesickness) – such as traveling and spending long periods away from home.

[5] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[6] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[7] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

There has been a rise in the conversations around the mental health challenges of both aspiring and professional athletes, with a lot of them ending up bankrupt and suicidal. For instance, Tennis star, Naomi Osaka’s refusal to speak to the press after the French Open tournament due to anxiety was met with criticisms, threats of suspension and a fine of $15,000. This is one of many examples of the implications of athletes prioritizing their mental health, and the failure of sport organizations to properly take cognizance of the importance of mental wellness.

NIGERIA 

In Nigeria, popular sport scientist, Adegoke Adelabu, disclosed in The Guardian that “many sportsmen and women have undiagnosed psychological or mental health issues”. Adelabu further disclosed that in response to the pressures of defeat and victory, many athletes’ resort to drugs, alcohol etc. in a bid to cope with life’s challenges.  This consequently takes a toll on their mental health and in effect results in mental illnesses. Adelabu also noted that a contributory factor to the deteriorating mental health of Nigerian athletes is the appointment of incompetent sports administrators who have no proper understanding on how to develop the sports sector. This denotes lack of sensitivity to national development through the instrument of sports.  

Further research has shown that participants of individual sports have a higher tendency of being exposed to mental health crisis compared to athletes who participate in team sports. There is therefore the need for specially curated mental health regiments and regulations that help address this difference. 

Many Nigerian Athletes are often discouraged from speaking out on their mental health issues for various reasons such as;

– Stigmatization

– Religious beliefs

– Lack of understanding about mental health and its effects on athletic performance

– The perception of help-seeking as a sign of weakness, 

– Fear of being excluded from the team or missing out 

– Fear of missing out on endorsements and merchandising deals- Fear of not being allowed to compete.

Factors inhibiting the advancement/protection of mental health in Nigerian athletes include;

  • Lack of basic/proper education
  • Lack of adequate investment in the sports sector
  • Lack of Planning or Mentorship for aspiring athletes
  • Lack of Financial planning pre-post the Athlete’s amateur/professional career
  • Lack of proper medical care for Athletes pre-post the Athletes’ amateur/professional career
  • Lack of proper psychological care for Athletes pre-post the Athlete’s amateur/professional career
  • Shortage of properly trained/specialized psychiatrists and mental healthcare workers
  • Lack of adequate welfare package for students and aspiring Athletes
  • Lack of qualified sports administrators

[5] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[6] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[7] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

THE ADVANCEMENT/PROTECTION OF MENTAL HEALTH THROUGH LEGISLATION 

INTERNATIONAL JURISDICTIONS

  1. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (U.S.A)

The United States of America has various laws and regulations tailored toward the advancement/protection of the mental health of athletes. Some of these legislations include the National Mental Health Act 1946, and the Mental Health Systems Act 1980.  Owing to these legislations, the National Institute of Mental Health was established for the purpose of addressing the mental health issues of athletes. Similarly, several community mental health centers have been established. It is therefore unsurprising that given the clear-cut state of the regulatory framework in the United States, athletes have become more open on matters related to their own mental health

experiences. The leagues which the athletes play in have begun adopting policies to support athlete wellness (pre and post professional career). 

In 2019, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) established guidelines that require major conferences to provide mental health support to student athletes. Similarly, the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 2018 instituted a mental health and wellness program for its players called Mind Health. Also, the National Football League (NFL) in 2019 implemented a policy mandating every team to employ a mental health professional on a part-time basis.  In 2020, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) also created new mental health program and extensive resources for athletes representing the United States. It is therefore unsurprising the heights which American athletes attain in their respective fields.

2. UNITED KINGDOM

In March 2018, the United Kingdom released an action plan titled “Mental Health and Elite Athletes Action plan” tailored towards addressing the mental health issues faced by British athletes. Some notable points in the action plan include; 

  • training of staff and athletes on how to identify mental health issues and how it can be treated, 
  • creation of mental health centers across the U.K., 
  • creation of standard requirements for supporting athlete and Athlete Support Personnel (ASP) mental health across elite sport and 
  • development of e-learning course with Mind and Sport England.

Although, a well-rounded regulation addressing mental health issues of athletes, has not been created, the above-mentioned framework could be deemed steps in the right direction, which will continue to foster the advancement of the protection of athletes’ mental health in the United Kingdom.

3. AUSTRIA

Special Olympics Health introduced the Special Olympics Strong Minds program which aims to teach athletes mental exercises and provide resources to increase relaxation and stress management skills. James Richardson who actively took part in this program spoke about the impact of this program on his mental health, stating that the program helped him find a way “to put my positive thoughts into words that I can then use to help me control stress when needed.” 

NIGERIA

The conception of mental health related issues in Nigeria is largely defined by social norms and definitions of insanity. Indeed, there have been past legislations concerning mental health such as the Nigerian Lunacy Act, which can be said to be inadequate and outdated. Though, a Mental Health Bill was debated on the floor of the Nigerian National Assembly in 2003, the Bill was unsuccessful and was eventually withdrawn in April 2009. The Bill was presented again in 2013 but failed in its attempt to become law and little or nothing has been heard about the Bill since then. 

Indeed, there is no clear legal or regulatory framework existing and specifically tailored to address mental health issues with respect to athletes. The conversations around mental health issues in Nigeria can be said to be generally fraught with misinterpretations and misconceptions, and we believe the legislature can help improve this by enacting laws that specifically address these issues, especially with sports and athletes in Nigeria. Sports regulators/administrators may also take steps towards affirmative actions by sensitizing the public on these issues. In the absence of a clearly defined regulatory framework, the quality of care and life for athletes (pre – post-professional career) in Nigeria will remain negligible. A good example is the positive steps taken by the government of Ekiti state, by signing the Mental Health Service Bill into Law in Ekiti state. The Bill is to help provide a framework to protect, provide, care and treat persons living with mental health disorders or substance abuse. Furthermore, in a bid to promote mental wellness, the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu has started the construction of a 1500 Bed psychiatric Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre located at Ketu-Ejirin town in Ikosi-Ejirin, Epe, Lagos.

RECOMMENDATIONS (NIGERIA)

Indeed, it is time pressure groups and stakeholders, especially those in the mental health, welfare, and sports sector begin to intentionally engage the legislative arm of government in Nigeria. The proposed Mental Health Bill needs to be reviewed and passed into law, to help ensure the mental health challenges affecting athletes and citizens, in general, are adequately addressed or catered for. 

After a detailed analysis of the regulatory framework and legislations of other countries, we can conclude that the following recommendations will go a long way in improving the welfare and provision of facilities to aid the advancement and protection of mental health in Nigerian sports lovers and Athletes (pre-post professional career);

  1. Education
  2. Specialized training of Psychologists and mental healthcare workers, and the establishment of more Mental Health Rehabilitation centers
  3. Establishment of a special task force for monitoring and enforcing the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs in sports
  4. Improvement of welfare in the sports industry 
  5. Development of more community centers
  6. Establishment of a National/Nigerian Institute of Mental Health

[5] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[6] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[7] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

  1. EDUCATION

It is essential that stakeholders in the educational system continue to dialogue and engage the government on ways to improve the Nigerian educational system. A good educational system for youths or aspiring athletes will help broaden their horizon, enlighten them on options available to athletes in and outside sports, and how to develop a plan B should they not make it professionally in sports. 

Also, we will recommend the introduction of;

  1. A minimum educational level/qualification for aspiring athletes to actively pursue a career in sports.
  2. Compelling schools to design and adopt athletics-friendly curriculums and scholarships, to enable their students or aspiring talents stay in school while actively pursuing their passion or ambition in sports, without dropping one for the other. 
  1. SPECIALIZED TRAINING OF PSYCHOLOGISTS AND MENTAL HEALTHCARE WORKERS, AND THE ESTABLISHMENT OF MORE MENTAL HEALTH REHABILITATION CENTRES

There is clearly the need for investment and training of more qualified hands in the mental health care sector. At the moment, the Nigerian health sector is not only suffering from lack of adequate funding, but we are now suffering from lack of qualified man power, due to lack of welfare and remuneration. One then begins to wonder; how will the healthcare workers effectively carry out their duties when they themselves need both financial and mental help?

We need to train and employ more psychologists, and compliment this by building more dedicated mental health centers in schools, community centers and local governments to provide regular counselling to youths, aspiring, professional and retired athletes, will help in sensitizing the public on mental health issues and how not to castigate those suffering from it, early diagnosis or detection of mental health issues, common triggers, improve welfare, reduce social backlash or violence and consequently reducing crime rates in the society. 

Key legislation must be used to compel sports organizations to hold regular workshops tailored towards promoting the mental health of their athletes. The development and enhancement of treatment protocols for athletes suffering from sport-specific related issues, such as overtraining, psychological reactions to injuries, and retirement form sport is highly advised. 

By organizing regular mental health training and awareness workshops, dedicated psychologists and counselors will help guide aspiring athletes in drawing up a career path in and outside of sports. 

  1. ESTABLISHMENT OF A SPECIAL TASK FORCE FOR MONITORING AND ENFORCING THE PROHIBITION OF PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS IN SPORTS

Key legislation must also be used to further combat the abuse of drugs in sports, which in adverse effect, affects the mental health of the Athletes pre-post professional career. Young and aspiring athletes must be put through rigorous drug testing regiments at all time. The law must also provide “severer” punishments for those found wanting.

For example, Coaches or Guardians also found guilty of encouraging drug use, must be banned from sports, and criminally prosecuted. Many Nigerian athletes such as; Tosin Adeloye, Folashade Abugan and Blessing Okagbare have been flagged for doping which has led to serious warnings, bad press for the country’s sports and athletes, loss of medals, loss of endorsements, and long term bans (Two years and Eight years sanctions).

  1. IMPROVEMENT OF WELFARE IN THE SPORTS INDUSTRY

Compelling stakeholders to re-invest in the sports industry (the special tax system) through their companies or sports outfits with dedicated departments created to provide welfare aid to aspiring or young professional athletes will be beneficial to the Nigerian sports industry. For instance, in the United Kingdom, football clubs have been pushed to create welfare departments such as the “professional development phase”- player care, with the aim of helping young aspiring/professional players and their families settle into their new life, environment, arrange for travels, provide financial advisory and support, handle things that basically will distract or stress the players.

Due to a lack of proper welfare, training facilities, and infrastructure, a lot of aspiring Nigerian athletes have relocated and naturalized to other foreign countries. All in pursuit of a better sporting career and life in general. How long do we want to continue losing our talents?  Where do we draw the line to make sure our unsung heroes do not end up bankrupt and forgotten after retirement? The retired athletes in Nigeria for example, lack proper welfare and medical support needed to adjust to normal societal life. No retirement benefits or stipends to help them in their old age, which renders a lot of them frustrated due to a lack of finance or care. These are things proper legislation can help fight. 

The enactment of a law mandating the creation of a sinking fund to help support retired or injured athletes will go a long way in the advancement/protection of mental health issues in Nigerian athletes, as a lot of these aspiring, professional or retired athletes are often breadwinners for their families, and lack of proper investment, planning, care or expenses incurred from career threatening or ending injuries could be devasting to their mental health and finances.

  1. DEVELOPMENT OF MORE COMMUNITY SPORTS CENTRES

This will help in taking sports closer to the grassroots; being schools and local communities, where talented and aspiring athletes can be scouted and nurtured from an early age. Consequently, exposing the talents to proper coaching, training facilities, education, mentoring on mental health, and a career part in and out of sports.

The lack of proper education and modern training facilities is why a lot of Nigerian athletes go on to study and train in foreign countries, who then offer them the opportunity to naturalize. These talents go ahead to be great performers while their counterparts that choose to remain in Nigeria continue to underperform and end up frustrated, causing them to opt for illegal ways to enhance their performance or subdue the frustration.

The development of multiple well-equipped and maintained community sports centers in states and local governments will definitely see a positive growth in the mental and physical wellness and development of our athletes.

  1. ESTABLISHMENT OF A NATIONAL/NIGERIAN INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH

The establishment of a mental health institute will help ensure research and data gathering of issues on mental disorder in Nigeria. With its mission being to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, creating avenues for enlightenment, fighting stigmatization, paving the way for prevention and rehabilitation. 

A fully functional health institute will help engage and constantly advise the legislative arm of government on initiatives, directives, policies, and laws that can be enacted to help improve mental health care in Nigeria.

SUMMARY

This article discusses and highlights various causes of mental health issues in athletes and the unwillingness of athletes to speak up on such issues due to reasons like stigmatization and fear of being excluded from games or missing out on endorsements. Also, identifying some key causes of mental health issues in athletes such as; overtraining, performance expectations, low social support, social media scrutiny, depression and so many more. 

This article, further highlights various legal frameworks created in other jurisdictions, to aid the advancement/protection of the mental health of its athletes, such as; the Mental Health and Elite Athletes Action Plan in the U.K., the Mental Health and Wellness Program created by the National Basketball Association in the U.S.A. and the Special Olympics Strong Minds program in Austria.

In conclusion, the article then identifies various recommendations to help advance/protect the mental health of athletes in Nigeria, such as; setting a minimum educational qualification as a criterion to actively pursue a sports career; Recruitment and adequate training of mental healthcare workers; the development of more community sports center’s; establishment of a special task force for monitoring and enforcing the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs in Nigerian sports; improvement of the welfare of the mental health care works and even the athletes as well; and the establishment of a Mental Health Institute.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Mental Illness’ (National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)2020)
  2. https://www.athletesforhope.org/2019/05/mental-health-and-athletes/#:~:text=Among%20professional%20athletes%2C%20data%20shows,burnout%2C%20or%20depression%20and%20anxiety.
  3. https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.
  4. ‘About Mental Health’ (2022) https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
  5. Weston, Maureen A, The Anxious Athlete: Mental Health and Sports’ Duty and Advantage to Protect (2022). 13 Harvard Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law 1 (2022), Pepperdine University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2021/26, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3938579
  6. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Mental_Health_of_Elite_Athletes#cite_note-8
  7. https://www.self.com/story/naomi-osaka-wont-do-interviews-french-open
  8. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/michael-phelps-my-depression-and-anxiety-is-never-going-to-just-disappear
  9. Case No. 3:08-cv-241/LAC/EMT (N.D. Fla. Jun. 24, 2008)
  10. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Mental_Health_of_Elite_Athletes#cite_note-8
  11. https://www.skysports.com/tennis/news/32455/12320935/naomi-osaka-fined-15000-for-not-doing-french-open-post-match-press-conference-and-threatened-with-disqualification
  12. Many Sportsmen, Women Have Undiagnosed Mental Health Issues’ (The Guardian Nigeria News -15 May 2020) < “https://guardian.ng/sport/many-sportsmen-women-have-undiagnosed-mental-health-issues-says-adelabu/” >     
  13. Emily Pluhar and others, ‘Team Sport Athletes May Be Less Likely to Suffer Anxiety or Depression than Individual Sport Athletes’ (2019) 18 Journal of sports science & medicine 490 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6683619/
  14. https://ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com/compliance/d1/2019 20D1Comp_SummaryofNCAARegulations.pdf
  15. https://mindhealth.nba.com/
  16. Emily Klueh, ‘Time for Change: Mental Health in Athletes – Athletes Connected’ (Umich.edu17 November 2021) <
  17. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/691770/180320_FINAL_Mental_Health_and_Elite_Sport_Action_Plan.pdf
  18. https://www.specialolympics.org/stories/news/the-power-within-strong-minds-program-giving-athletes-the-tools-to succeed?ms=social&cha=11&utm_source=social&utm_campaign=worldptday&utm_content=20180908_tw
  19. https://guardian.ng/news/fayemi-signs-mental-health-service-bill-into-law/05-08-2022
  20. https://apnews.com/article/winter-olympics-sports-business-doping-africa-5f2c057c6978cc580a48c2ab2c8d75f5
  21. https://www.bellanaija.com/2016/07/nigerian-athlete-tosin-adeloye-disqualified-from-rio-olympics-and-banned-for-8-years-following-positive-drug-test/
  22. https://niyitabiti.net/2022/08/lasg-commences-construction-of-1500-bed-psychiatric-hospital-in-epe-pictures/ 

CONTRIBUTORS: 

page11image536

BASHIR O. RUFAI
Partner, Stalwart Legal

Eniola Sogbesan
 Associate, Stalwart Legal Practitioners

Toluwalashe Ilori
Associate, Stalwart Legal

THE ROLE OF LEGISLATION IN THE ADVANCEMENT/ PROTECTION OF THE MENTAL HEALTH OF ATHLETES IN NIGERIA (PRE – POST PROFESSIONAL CAREER)

INTRODUCTION 

Conversations surrounding issues of mental health and the welfare of individuals (especially athletes) have gained attention worldwide. Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of the mental health challenges faced by individuals and their inability to discuss, express themselves or even seek the required help. Recently, research carried out in the United States of America states that an estimated 52.9 million people suffer from one form of mental illness or the other [1]. On a micro level, this means that 1 in every 5 adults in the United States lives with a mental health condition[2]. While in Nigeria and Africa at large, there is no access to this sort of data, not to talk of the stigma that comes from seeking help for mental issues.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO);

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”[3]

Mental health has also been defined to include an individual’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It is said to affect how one thinks, feels, and acts and also helps determine how one handles stress, relates to others, and makes healthy choices.

[2]. This has raised discussions related to the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the industry.  

‘’For the business enterprise, sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining, and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future.’’

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[2] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[3] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

This article aims to highlight the key role legislation can play in the advancement/protection of the mental health of athletes, particularly in Nigeria. It also proposes frameworks that can be adopted by sports regulators to address mental health issues affecting Nigerian athletes (pre – post-athletic career).

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES FACED BY ATHLETES

Considering the many complexities of the sports industry and the available data on the variety of sports, leagues, team franchise and ownership structures, private and quasi-public regulatory and governance schemes, federations, committees, councils, and extensive commercial ventures, one could conclude that a disproportionate focus is placed on athletes’ physical health (money maker) at the expense of their mental health. 

A recent study of mental health in British elite athletes found a prevalence of anxiety/depression of 47.8% and signs of distress of 26.8%. In Australia, a mental health survey of athletes recorded a prevalence of 46.4% for athletes who experienced at least one symptom of the mental health disorder investigated. According to data from professional athletes in the United States, up to 35% of top athletes suffer from a mental health crisis, which can manifest themselves as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression, or anxiety. These statistics are quite damning for the global sports industry and call for increased focus and investment in the mental health of athletes. Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s refusal to submit to post-match press conferences at the 2021 French Open tournament, citing mental health issues and anxiety in facing the barrage of intense media questions is a case in point. Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps has also spoken about his struggles with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts during his professional career. The case of Justin Gatlin v. U.S. Anti-doping agency highlighted the issue of doping in the athletic community.

CAUSES OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES AFFECTING ATHLETES (PRE-POST PROFESSIONAL CAREER) GLOBALLY

Athletes (aspiring and professional) are often put under immense levels of stress as a result of the constant demand for excellence and desire for success. Relevant studies have revealed that some common stressors elite athletes face that leads to mental health issues include; 

  • failure to make it professionally, 
  • lack of proper education, 
  • overtraining,
  • performance expectations
  • lack of family support, 
  • injury, 
  • major negative life events, 
  • social media scrutiny, 
  • low social support, 
  • organizational factors (homesickness) – such as traveling and spending long periods away from home.

[5] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[6] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[7] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

There has been a rise in the conversations around the mental health challenges of both aspiring and professional athletes, with a lot of them ending up bankrupt and suicidal. For instance, Tennis star, Naomi Osaka’s refusal to speak to the press after the French Open tournament due to anxiety was met with criticisms, threats of suspension and a fine of $15,000. This is one of many examples of the implications of athletes prioritizing their mental health, and the failure of sport organizations to properly take cognizance of the importance of mental wellness.

NIGERIA 

In Nigeria, popular sport scientist, Adegoke Adelabu, disclosed in The Guardian that “many sportsmen and women have undiagnosed psychological or mental health issues”. Adelabu further disclosed that in response to the pressures of defeat and victory, many athletes’ resort to drugs, alcohol etc. in a bid to cope with life’s challenges.  This consequently takes a toll on their mental health and in effect results in mental illnesses. Adelabu also noted that a contributory factor to the deteriorating mental health of Nigerian athletes is the appointment of incompetent sports administrators who have no proper understanding on how to develop the sports sector. This denotes lack of sensitivity to national development through the instrument of sports.  

Further research has shown that participants of individual sports have a higher tendency of being exposed to mental health crisis compared to athletes who participate in team sports. There is therefore the need for specially curated mental health regiments and regulations that help address this difference. 

Many Nigerian Athletes are often discouraged from speaking out on their mental health issues for various reasons such as;

– Stigmatization

– Religious beliefs

– Lack of understanding about mental health and its effects on athletic performance

– The perception of help-seeking as a sign of weakness, 

– Fear of being excluded from the team or missing out 

– Fear of missing out on endorsements and merchandising deals- Fear of not being allowed to compete.

Factors inhibiting the advancement/protection of mental health in Nigerian athletes include;

  • Lack of basic/proper education
  • Lack of adequate investment in the sports sector
  • Lack of Planning or Mentorship for aspiring athletes
  • Lack of Financial planning pre-post the Athlete’s amateur/professional career
  • Lack of proper medical care for Athletes pre-post the Athletes’ amateur/professional career
  • Lack of proper psychological care for Athletes pre-post the Athlete’s amateur/professional career
  • Shortage of properly trained/specialized psychiatrists and mental healthcare workers
  • Lack of adequate welfare package for students and aspiring Athletes
  • Lack of qualified sports administrators

[5] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[6] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[7] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

THE ADVANCEMENT/PROTECTION OF MENTAL HEALTH THROUGH LEGISLATION 

INTERNATIONAL JURISDICTIONS

  1. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (U.S.A)

The United States of America has various laws and regulations tailored toward the advancement/protection of the mental health of athletes. Some of these legislations include the National Mental Health Act 1946, and the Mental Health Systems Act 1980.  Owing to these legislations, the National Institute of Mental Health was established for the purpose of addressing the mental health issues of athletes. Similarly, several community mental health centers have been established. It is therefore unsurprising that given the clear-cut state of the regulatory framework in the United States, athletes have become more open on matters related to their own mental health

experiences. The leagues which the athletes play in have begun adopting policies to support athlete wellness (pre and post professional career). 

In 2019, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) established guidelines that require major conferences to provide mental health support to student athletes. Similarly, the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 2018 instituted a mental health and wellness program for its players called Mind Health. Also, the National Football League (NFL) in 2019 implemented a policy mandating every team to employ a mental health professional on a part-time basis.  In 2020, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) also created new mental health program and extensive resources for athletes representing the United States. It is therefore unsurprising the heights which American athletes attain in their respective fields.

2. UNITED KINGDOM

In March 2018, the United Kingdom released an action plan titled “Mental Health and Elite Athletes Action plan” tailored towards addressing the mental health issues faced by British athletes. Some notable points in the action plan include; 

  • training of staff and athletes on how to identify mental health issues and how it can be treated, 
  • creation of mental health centers across the U.K., 
  • creation of standard requirements for supporting athlete and Athlete Support Personnel (ASP) mental health across elite sport and 
  • development of e-learning course with Mind and Sport England.

Although, a well-rounded regulation addressing mental health issues of athletes, has not been created, the above-mentioned framework could be deemed steps in the right direction, which will continue to foster the advancement of the protection of athletes’ mental health in the United Kingdom.

3. AUSTRIA

Special Olympics Health introduced the Special Olympics Strong Minds program which aims to teach athletes mental exercises and provide resources to increase relaxation and stress management skills. James Richardson who actively took part in this program spoke about the impact of this program on his mental health, stating that the program helped him find a way “to put my positive thoughts into words that I can then use to help me control stress when needed.” 

NIGERIA

The conception of mental health related issues in Nigeria is largely defined by social norms and definitions of insanity. Indeed, there have been past legislations concerning mental health such as the Nigerian Lunacy Act, which can be said to be inadequate and outdated. Though, a Mental Health Bill was debated on the floor of the Nigerian National Assembly in 2003, the Bill was unsuccessful and was eventually withdrawn in April 2009. The Bill was presented again in 2013 but failed in its attempt to become law and little or nothing has been heard about the Bill since then. 

Indeed, there is no clear legal or regulatory framework existing and specifically tailored to address mental health issues with respect to athletes. The conversations around mental health issues in Nigeria can be said to be generally fraught with misinterpretations and misconceptions, and we believe the legislature can help improve this by enacting laws that specifically address these issues, especially with sports and athletes in Nigeria. Sports regulators/administrators may also take steps towards affirmative actions by sensitizing the public on these issues. In the absence of a clearly defined regulatory framework, the quality of care and life for athletes (pre – post-professional career) in Nigeria will remain negligible. A good example is the positive steps taken by the government of Ekiti state, by signing the Mental Health Service Bill into Law in Ekiti state. The Bill is to help provide a framework to protect, provide, care and treat persons living with mental health disorders or substance abuse. Furthermore, in a bid to promote mental wellness, the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu has started the construction of a 1500 Bed psychiatric Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre located at Ketu-Ejirin town in Ikosi-Ejirin, Epe, Lagos.

RECOMMENDATIONS (NIGERIA)

Indeed, it is time pressure groups and stakeholders, especially those in the mental health, welfare, and sports sector begin to intentionally engage the legislative arm of government in Nigeria. The proposed Mental Health Bill needs to be reviewed and passed into law, to help ensure the mental health challenges affecting athletes and citizens, in general, are adequately addressed or catered for. 

After a detailed analysis of the regulatory framework and legislations of other countries, we can conclude that the following recommendations will go a long way in improving the welfare and provision of facilities to aid the advancement and protection of mental health in Nigerian sports lovers and Athletes (pre-post professional career);

  1. Education
  2. Specialized training of Psychologists and mental healthcare workers, and the establishment of more Mental Health Rehabilitation centers
  3. Establishment of a special task force for monitoring and enforcing the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs in sports
  4. Improvement of welfare in the sports industry 
  5. Development of more community centers
  6. Establishment of a National/Nigerian Institute of Mental Health

[5] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[6] Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
[7] https://www.paho.org/en/topics/mental-health#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20(WHO,to%20his%20or%20her%20community%E2%80%9D.

  1. EDUCATION

It is essential that stakeholders in the educational system continue to dialogue and engage the government on ways to improve the Nigerian educational system. A good educational system for youths or aspiring athletes will help broaden their horizon, enlighten them on options available to athletes in and outside sports, and how to develop a plan B should they not make it professionally in sports. 

Also, we will recommend the introduction of;

  1. A minimum educational level/qualification for aspiring athletes to actively pursue a career in sports.
  2. Compelling schools to design and adopt athletics-friendly curriculums and scholarships, to enable their students or aspiring talents stay in school while actively pursuing their passion or ambition in sports, without dropping one for the other. 
  1. SPECIALIZED TRAINING OF PSYCHOLOGISTS AND MENTAL HEALTHCARE WORKERS, AND THE ESTABLISHMENT OF MORE MENTAL HEALTH REHABILITATION CENTRES

There is clearly the need for investment and training of more qualified hands in the mental health care sector. At the moment, the Nigerian health sector is not only suffering from lack of adequate funding, but we are now suffering from lack of qualified man power, due to lack of welfare and remuneration. One then begins to wonder; how will the healthcare workers effectively carry out their duties when they themselves need both financial and mental help?

We need to train and employ more psychologists, and compliment this by building more dedicated mental health centers in schools, community centers and local governments to provide regular counselling to youths, aspiring, professional and retired athletes, will help in sensitizing the public on mental health issues and how not to castigate those suffering from it, early diagnosis or detection of mental health issues, common triggers, improve welfare, reduce social backlash or violence and consequently reducing crime rates in the society. 

Key legislation must be used to compel sports organizations to hold regular workshops tailored towards promoting the mental health of their athletes. The development and enhancement of treatment protocols for athletes suffering from sport-specific related issues, such as overtraining, psychological reactions to injuries, and retirement form sport is highly advised. 

By organizing regular mental health training and awareness workshops, dedicated psychologists and counselors will help guide aspiring athletes in drawing up a career path in and outside of sports. 

  1. ESTABLISHMENT OF A SPECIAL TASK FORCE FOR MONITORING AND ENFORCING THE PROHIBITION OF PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS IN SPORTS

Key legislation must also be used to further combat the abuse of drugs in sports, which in adverse effect, affects the mental health of the Athletes pre-post professional career. Young and aspiring athletes must be put through rigorous drug testing regiments at all time. The law must also provide “severer” punishments for those found wanting.

For example, Coaches or Guardians also found guilty of encouraging drug use, must be banned from sports, and criminally prosecuted. Many Nigerian athletes such as; Tosin Adeloye, Folashade Abugan and Blessing Okagbare have been flagged for doping which has led to serious warnings, bad press for the country’s sports and athletes, loss of medals, loss of endorsements, and long term bans (Two years and Eight years sanctions).

  1. IMPROVEMENT OF WELFARE IN THE SPORTS INDUSTRY

Compelling stakeholders to re-invest in the sports industry (the special tax system) through their companies or sports outfits with dedicated departments created to provide welfare aid to aspiring or young professional athletes will be beneficial to the Nigerian sports industry. For instance, in the United Kingdom, football clubs have been pushed to create welfare departments such as the “professional development phase”- player care, with the aim of helping young aspiring/professional players and their families settle into their new life, environment, arrange for travels, provide financial advisory and support, handle things that basically will distract or stress the players.

Due to a lack of proper welfare, training facilities, and infrastructure, a lot of aspiring Nigerian athletes have relocated and naturalized to other foreign countries. All in pursuit of a better sporting career and life in general. How long do we want to continue losing our talents?  Where do we draw the line to make sure our unsung heroes do not end up bankrupt and forgotten after retirement? The retired athletes in Nigeria for example, lack proper welfare and medical support needed to adjust to normal societal life. No retirement benefits or stipends to help them in their old age, which renders a lot of them frustrated due to a lack of finance or care. These are things proper legislation can help fight. 

The enactment of a law mandating the creation of a sinking fund to help support retired or injured athletes will go a long way in the advancement/protection of mental health issues in Nigerian athletes, as a lot of these aspiring, professional or retired athletes are often breadwinners for their families, and lack of proper investment, planning, care or expenses incurred from career threatening or ending injuries could be devasting to their mental health and finances.

  1. DEVELOPMENT OF MORE COMMUNITY SPORTS CENTRES

This will help in taking sports closer to the grassroots; being schools and local communities, where talented and aspiring athletes can be scouted and nurtured from an early age. Consequently, exposing the talents to proper coaching, training facilities, education, mentoring on mental health, and a career part in and out of sports.

The lack of proper education and modern training facilities is why a lot of Nigerian athletes go on to study and train in foreign countries, who then offer them the opportunity to naturalize. These talents go ahead to be great performers while their counterparts that choose to remain in Nigeria continue to underperform and end up frustrated, causing them to opt for illegal ways to enhance their performance or subdue the frustration.

The development of multiple well-equipped and maintained community sports centers in states and local governments will definitely see a positive growth in the mental and physical wellness and development of our athletes.

  1. ESTABLISHMENT OF A NATIONAL/NIGERIAN INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH

The establishment of a mental health institute will help ensure research and data gathering of issues on mental disorder in Nigeria. With its mission being to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, creating avenues for enlightenment, fighting stigmatization, paving the way for prevention and rehabilitation. 

A fully functional health institute will help engage and constantly advise the legislative arm of government on initiatives, directives, policies, and laws that can be enacted to help improve mental health care in Nigeria.

SUMMARY

This article discusses and highlights various causes of mental health issues in athletes and the unwillingness of athletes to speak up on such issues due to reasons like stigmatization and fear of being excluded from games or missing out on endorsements. Also, identifying some key causes of mental health issues in athletes such as; overtraining, performance expectations, low social support, social media scrutiny, depression and so many more. 

This article, further highlights various legal frameworks created in other jurisdictions, to aid the advancement/protection of the mental health of its athletes, such as; the Mental Health and Elite Athletes Action Plan in the U.K., the Mental Health and Wellness Program created by the National Basketball Association in the U.S.A. and the Special Olympics Strong Minds program in Austria.

In conclusion, the article then identifies various recommendations to help advance/protect the mental health of athletes in Nigeria, such as; setting a minimum educational qualification as a criterion to actively pursue a sports career; Recruitment and adequate training of mental healthcare workers; the development of more community sports center’s; establishment of a special task force for monitoring and enforcing the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs in Nigerian sports; improvement of the welfare of the mental health care works and even the athletes as well; and the establishment of a Mental Health Institute.

 

REFERENCES

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  22. https://niyitabiti.net/2022/08/lasg-commences-construction-of-1500-bed-psychiatric-hospital-in-epe-pictures/ 

CONTRIBUTORS: 

page11image536

BASHIR O. RUFAI
Partner, Stalwart Legal

Eniola Sogbesan
 Associate, Stalwart Legal Practitioners

Toluwalashe Ilori
Associate, Stalwart Legal

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