Blog: Dr Claire-Marie Roberts - We must have an environment that puts the person before the athlete

Doping in sport can arise due to a number of factors and influences, from a lack of education to a desire to win at all costs, and many things in between. As part of World Mental Health Day, UKAD Board member and Chartered Psychologist Dr Claire-Marie Roberts, discusses how mental ill-health can affect the decision to dope.

It’s not often that we have the luxury of being able to reflect on one of the primary causes of doping in sport in detail, yet with today being World Mental Health Day, it seems timely to look at the interaction between mental ill-health and doping.

In my practice as a sport psychology consultant, one of my principal concerns is the protection of the psychological well-being of my athlete clients who often exist in a cut-throat, unforgiving, intensely pressurised environment where their worth is measured by competitive outcomes. We rarely stop to consider the impact of this relentless existence on the mental health of these individuals, whose physical attributes are frequently prioritised over their mental states. 

Realistically, it is important to critically consider that the motives for doping in sport run deeper than a mere competitive advantage. Image and performance enhancing drugs (IPEDs) are often used to cope with stressors specific to the athletic environment. For example, cash-strapped jockeys may be tempted to use diuretics to help guarantee that they’ll make weight for a race in order to earn their all-important racing fee.

Similarly, I have observed an increasing trend of athletes at the end of their careers using IPEDs to mask the pain and restriction of cumulative sport injuries – all because they are avoiding the perceived psychological pain of athletic retirement. Then there are the cases of athletes who self-medicate with illegal drugs in an attempt to mask the effects of clinical anxiety or depression generated, or at least exacerbated by the sporting environment. Indeed, in some cases, athletes may be suffering from mental ill-health, but are put off from reporting their problems, or seeking help for fear of the perceived stigma. In these cases, illegal drugs often become masking agents.

Regardless of the legal status of the IPEDs, I suggest that the practice of using drugs in this way – in a harmful or hazardous manner, is tantamount to substance abuse. The side effects of substance abuse can actually worsen the symptoms that they were initially intended to relieve, and in some cases new symptoms may be triggered. Either way, it is important for those working in sports governance and as athlete support personnel to consider the core drivers of these underpinning behaviours.

Whilst the core drivers are multifactorial, in my experience, a key contributor to the prevalence of mental ill-health in the athletic population is the culture of the high-performance sporting environment. It’s clear that in general, sport remains a discriminatory environment where there is great reluctance to exhibit or even seek help for behaviours that may illustrate a “weakness” and potentially effect critical selection decisions. Ultimately, we all have a collective responsibility to create an environment that puts the “person” before the “athlete”, and for creating and maintaining cultures that allow individuals to thrive both as a person and as a performer. A wide adoption of a commitment to athlete welfare and well-being, is likely to help reduce the instances of mental ill-health and therefore the potential to use doping as a coping mechanism. On World Mental Health Day 2018, let’s make a commitment to make sport a more forgiving industry, one that celebrates individual differences and acknowledges that athletes are human beings who all need support from time to time.

If you, or anyone you know, are struggling then there are several places you can approach for help and support. Broadly, the Mind website has a list of support services, but your National Governing Body (NGB) should also be able to offer guidance, while the likes of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA), and Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) also each have dedicated teams and resources to support their athletes, so please don’t think you’re alone.

If you need further information and resources on clean sport, you can also see the UKAD website.