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Watching a close friend suffer is difficult, but living with them as they struggle is even harder. This was the reality for Ainsley MacIntyre. She watched daily as her happy-go-lucky roommate, who was always ready to help everyone else, struggled beneath her charming attitude and almost permanent smile.

“She’s honestly just the happiest person and she’s one of the people that can brighten your day and seeing her struggle with her own mental health, seeing it first hand from being her roommate was tough for me because she was really good at hiding it,” said MacIntyre, an athlete at the University of Regina, who became passionate about mental health awareness when she witnessed her teammate as well as a best friend struggling under the radar.

MacIntyre, a forward for the university’s women’s basketball team knows the importance of mental wellness and the pressures that come with being involved in sports. “With student athletes in general it’s super tough because we’re kind of seen as these people who need to excel both on and off the court, in the classroom and in the community.”

One in five Canadians experience mental health problems during their lifetime. Sports tend to be physically demanding so it is easy to forget how much mental aspects can play into them. The University of Regina held a mental health awareness week February 6-10 with events that included a presentation by mental health activist and retired athlete Clara Hughes, a six-time Olympic medalist who speaks openly about her struggle with mental illness as an athlete.

“I think it’s a huge portion of sports,” MacIntyre said, explaining how physical injuries can take a toll on an athlete’s mental state.

The challenge is that mental illnesses are not easy to detect. “Some of the people you really don’t think, just from their outgoing personalities and the way they carry themselves, that they would be struggling on their own with this mental illness,” she said. MacIntyre advocates for mental health awareness in campaigns such as the recent Bell Let’s Talk, a campaign that saw people across Canada talking about mental health and trying the break the stigma surrounding it. “I think it’s really opened doors for people to talk about their struggles… to see all the athletes that were stepping up and talking, whether it was their personal struggles or just trying to find a platform to speak out about it was definitely very motivating.”

MacIntyre knows how much impact a mere presence can be. “I think the best thing for my roommate was she knew that I was always there for her and I was never pressing her to talk about it,” she said. “I think listening is definitely the biggest thing. You can’t force them to talk to you about it, but I think people have the comfort in knowing that they have friends and family and support systems.”

Sports are often thought of as being very physical, but that is not always the case. “Athletes aren’t only susceptible to physical injuries, there’s also mental illness and mental health struggles that they may face,” MacIntyre said. “I think it’s really important that you open up the conversation and (let) people know that it’s okay not to be okay.”

Lisa Hoffart, a mental performance consultant for the Saskatchewan Sports Medicine and Science Council, says the extra pressures, expectations and demands placed on athletes can increase their stress levels and this can often transfer into mental health issues. For students who have additional pressures of school and work, it can be overwhelming.

Breaking the stigma around mental health is both challenging and liberating. “One of the biggest things is going to be knowing that they can get help. Feeling like they have someone that they can reach out to, trust they can talk to,” Hoffart said. “I think having a mental health awareness course (for what) coaches are going through would be really helpful.”

But creating awareness in the world of sports can be tricky. Hoffart, who recently presented a talk on mental health to some coaches in Saskatchewan, knows there is still a lot of work ahead. “People that are more open to it are going to attend those things,” said Hoffart. “So someone who’s not open to it unfortunately is probably not going to attend unless they’re being forced and then they’re probably not getting much out of it anyway.”

Mental health can be an issue during an athlete’s career and also when an athlete retires. Hoffart said that while programs exist for dealing with mental health in athletes, many of these programs are geared towards elite athletes. “It’s looking at how programs and resources might be directed to increase awareness that youth can have issues, teenagers can have issues, people in their 20s and 30s all the way up can have issues,” Hoffart said. “It’s just going to be continuing that conversation and looking at how that population might be targeted.”