Causes of mental health problems

The causes of a person’s mental health problems are often complex. Often they involve a combination of genes, life events and social factors.

One prominent model is the biopsychosocial model which proposes that mental health problems are caused by an intricate, variable combination of biological factors (e.g. genetic, biochemical), psychological factors (e.g. temperament, personality, behaviour), and social factors (e.g. cultural, familial, socioeconomic, medical).

There are risk factors or stressors that are associated with higher incidence / greater severity of mental health problems. For example, a family history of mental health problems or adverse life events (e.g. abuse or neglect in childhood, divorce, death of spouse, severe bullying, poverty).

Specifically in sport the following can have a negative impact on mental health:

  • Injury
  • Performance demands prioritised above all else / high pressure environment
  • Media glare, negative reaction from public
  • Transitioning from sport
  • Intense focus on food intake, weight loss or gain

Positive parenting experiences, good social support network, good physical health and high IQ are recognised protective factors associated with lower incidence / lesser severity of mental health problems. The following are protective mental health factors that may be particularly relevant for elite athletes:

  • Engagement in meaningful activity
  • Sense of identity / belonging /purpose
  • Skills in sport valued by society
  • Support staff / family support / team around athlete
  • Sport helping player to regulate emotions

The way a person copes or responds to the symptoms they experience can greatly influence the extent of their distress and the impact on their day to day functioning. Unhelpful coping strategies include avoidance and alcohol or substance consumption. Helpful coping strategies include healthy attempts to regulate emotions (e.g. talking to a friend, going for a walk) and proactive problem solving (e.g. making a plan to resolve a financial stressor).