My mental health struggles

Helen Richardson-Walsh is one of Great Britain’s most successful hockey players. She was part of the team that claimed a bronze medal at London 2012 before winning gold four years later in Rio, Helen scoring one of Great Britain’s two decisive penalties in the final shoot-out against the Netherlands. Despite her success, career-threatening injuries left Helen with crippling depression, and she faced a number of battles on her journey as an elite athlete. Here, Helen reflects on how she coped with her mental health struggles, the support she received and her advice for athletes going through something similar.

  • Olympic gold medallist Helen Richardson-Walsh is one of Great Britain’s most successful hockey players.
  • She suffered from debilitating depression after injury threatened to put an early end to her career.
  • In this personal piece, Helen gives her advice to fellow athletes about an issue that is being increasingly discussed and less stigmatised.

I’ve got so much from playing sport, and I’ve learnt so much throughout my career. It has given me some of the best memories of my life. But I suffered a couple of bad injuries in my career, and I really want to share the things that I’ve learnt about that.

Soon after the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, I suffered my first major injury when one of the tendons in my ankle ruptured. It wasn’t pleasant and I needed three operations. I actually couldn’t play hockey for two years, so I missed out on the qualification matches for Athens 2004, and we failed to qualify for those Games.

When you’re injured – even if you’re only out for a week or two – it can really affect you. And then when that period of time gets longer and longer, I’m not quite sure there’s the appreciation yet of how that can really affect athletes mentally.

Not being able to play for two years – not being able to do the thing that you love doing for two whole years – was a really difficult time. But it’s a time that I reflect on and realise that I did actually learn quite a lot about myself so that I was able to come back much stronger – however hard it was at the time. If I’m able to offer some advice to the next generation of athletes, to make their journey may be a little less stressful, then that would be fantastic.

When things get too much

After the high of a home Games at London 2012, injury struck again and I ruptured a disc in my back that affected my spinal cord. It was tough, and I needed surgery again, but I still thought I had plenty of time to get back for Rio. Then the same thing happened less than a year later and I needed more surgery. That was when it all really hit home. I had missed a World Cup, we had a new coach in place, I was 32 years old, heading towards the end of my career, and there wasn’t much time before the Games. I really started to doubt whether I would ever get back and play for Great Britain again. Those types of thoughts were in my head and that’s why I struggled so much.

There were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I was in tears a lot of the time. I was just crying and I couldn’t stop. I was suffering from both physical pain and depression, I was struggling to sleep and felt like I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t change what was going on in my head and that’s when I realised I needed to get help.

Recovery starts with you

There are similarities between physical and mental rehabilitation. But mental illness can be more difficult to recover from. If your body is broken, and if it’s capable of repairing itself it will. I think the mental side can feel harder because it won’t just happen with time. Although time is really helpful, you’ll only recover if you’re doing the right things. You really need to have the right processes in place to be able to get back.

It’s about learning how to get the best out of yourself as an individual. It’s all about self-awareness and how you’re able to really work out what’s going on in your head. If you can do that then you can really start to change things.

I learned to help myself. I started mindfulness and I used mediation apps which I found really helpful. I took time out of my day to try and clear those negative thoughts, and I learned that I needed to spend more time with my friends and my family – which is something I probably didn’t do enough of in the past.

Let others be your support

That being said, there’s no doubt that I needed a lot of support through that time. I sought external help and started seeing a therapist. I was really struggling, and I had lost all my confidence and self-esteem. I needed that external help to get back to being me again.

It was really helpful to see someone that didn’t know anybody in sport, that didn’t care about anybody in my sport. They were just there for me. To have that was really important.

Hockey is, of course, a team sport. I think being part of a team probably helped and also didn’t help at the same time. When I’m struggling, I can really isolate myself. I tend to take myself away from people which just makes things worse, but when I was able to share a little bit and give my team a sense of how I was feeling it did massively help.

The support I got from the whole squad was amazing and I think it just goes to show that people are accepting and supportive; otherwise, if they don’t know what’s going on, they can’t help. I was really happy that I did share my struggles, which I did personally with my closest friends and with the wider team via a blog. It helped me, but I think it also helped the team know what was going on inside my head, which in turn helped our relationships.

My advice to any athletes suffering with their mental health would be to seek help. It really did help me, and as soon as I’d done it I wished that I’d done it a bit earlier.

Awareness is key

I was lucky. I had lots of support, but at that time the kind of conversation around mental health and wellbeing that we see today hadn’t started. I think that’s one of the biggest areas of change. It’s still not where it needs to be, but it’s definitely on the agenda. There should be some very clear protocols and processes in place, so if you’re injured you are able to get that support regardless of who you are, what you’ve achieved and which sport you’re in.

There is still a stigma around mental health. It’s dependent on your context, but I think in sport – with a few people have now spoken out – it is becoming less stigmatised. But sometimes you can’t help the thoughts in your head and how you feel that others are going to perceive you. There is still this feeling that depression is a sign of weakness, that you can’t cope with what’s been put in front of you. The more that people speak about it the better and easier it will get in the future. I don’t think it’s necessarily one for discussion in the wider public, but I do think it really helps to just put it out on the table and make it a discussion with those around you.

My advice to any athletes suffering from their mental health would be to seek help. Speak to one of your friends, or if you don’t feel comfortable with that then go to a professional. Speak to your doctor, get referred to see a therapist. It really did help me, and as soon as I’d done it I wished that I’d done it a bit earlier. Seek help in whichever form you feel is best for you.

Over the next 12 months, we will be addressing a number of key topics related to mental health, with insight from athletes and experts. Sign up to Athlete365 to stay updated.