Monday 14 October 2019

'People should be able to seek help without being seen as weak'

Jessie Barr opens up on murky waters of mental health issues in sport

Jessie Barr at the launch of the Irish Life Health Festival of Running. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jessie Barr at the launch of the Irish Life Health Festival of Running. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

"Why is it this big thing?" asks Jessie Barr. "Why isn't it like when you get an injury and go to a physio?"

The answer is obvious, and it's one the 29-year-old has come across repeatedly as she wades through the murky waters of mental health issues in sport.

If her PhD was a one-lap race, the kind she ran countless times in her career, she would now be turning for home: plenty still to do, but close enough to see the finish.

And what she has found is startling: "My research is finding people are willing to seek help but they're worried about what people think. 'Will my coach see me different? Will I be relegated to the subs' bench? Will I be dropped from the team?' There's always a worry about perception and 63 per cent of people said that's why they'd be slow to seek help."

For all of its highlights, Barr knows the dark side to elite sport. In 2012 she competed at the Olympics in London in the 4x400m and made a European final in the 400m hurdles. She was 22 at the time but never ran faster. She hasn't raced since 2016, calling time on her career late last year after a series of injuries.

"My head was fried," she admits. "I was battering a dead donkey at that stage with athletics."

She can remember the point of acceptance - standing with friends at the Cork Jazz Festival last October, sipping a pint at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon.

"I said, 'Actually, this isn't so bad.' That was the realisation - life outside athletics won't be so bad."

She still struggled, of course, and Barr is planning to see a clinical psychologist in the months ahead to aid her transition to a new career, her new identity.

"I'd like to be able to seek help without people thinking there's something wrong with me," she says, echoing a sentiment she's come across in various sportspeople.

She believes the stigma of mental health issues is most prevalent in male team sports, with players afraid to admit any issues for fear of being dropped.

"The nature of sport is you're removing weakness, (judging) the person who's mentally toughest and physically toughest, but if you tell people you're going to see a clinical psychologist, straight away it's (perceived as) weakness."

The goal of her research was to find out why, and Barr believes coaches must play a key role: "If (players) hear a coach giving out about someone going to a psychologist, that's where it can stem from. That's the opinion from a lot of coaches from the old-school era, the GAA in particular."

For Barr, the transition to life beyond athletics was "really hard" but she found her path in sports psychology.

While studying at UL she did workshops with the Munster Rugby Academy and in 2017 she landed an internship with the Sport Ireland Institute. That helped earn her a traineeship and she's now employed there part-time as a psychologist.

This week she is in Minsk, Belarus, working with the 63-strong Irish team at the European Games, and while she has all the qualifications to tell them the right things, Barr admits her work is often just a case of allowing athletes "to vent".

Having been on both sides of the fence, she knows the demands of elite sport can be psychologically crippling, but her goal is to help others through it and to normalise a practice - asking for help - which should be just that: normal.

Jessie Barr was speaking at the launch of the Irish Life Health Festival of Running, which takes place in Morton Stadium on Sunday, July 28

Irish Independent

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