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Exclusive: UOW Senior Lecturer Heads Adolescent Mental Health Sporting Program

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n an interview with Ministry of Sport, senior lecturer for University of Wollongong’s (UOW) school of psychology, Dr Stewart Vella, and principle investigator of the “Ahead of the Game” study, discussed the importance sport plays in adolescent mental health, and how his program is helping tackle this issue.

The study, funded by Movember, attempts to build wellbeing and resilience amongst boys between the ages of 12-18, using sport as vehicle to drive positive mental health initiatives through face-to-face and online modules.

The study found teenage athletes who undergo two-hours of sports-based mental health and literacy training enjoy improved wellbeing and are better equipped to deal with life’s setbacks.

Dr Vella explained the crucial nature of addressing mental health at such an early age.

“One statistic that we often talk about is that 50% of mental health problems have their onset before the age of 14,” Dr Vella told Ministry of Sport.

“We really need to be teaching kids, and young men, at that age about how to recognise mental health problems, about what to do with them, how to start a conversation, how to ask for help.

“Young men are sometimes ill-prepared for something like that and focusing here is a really important thing to do.

“One in seven men will have a mental health problem in any given year and what we’re really hoping to do for the vast majority of the young men that go through the program is facilitate this intention to seek help, this ability to recognise warning signs early, and the intention and knowledge to seek appropriate help,” he said.

One of the main aspects of the program is the fact it is subsequent to adolescent’s time at school, rather, sport acts as an escape and a comfortable environment for young men to express their feelings in a familiar environment.

“Sport participation in general is linked with better mental health and well-being,” Dr Vella said.

“I think particularly for young men, sport is a really engaging context, they find it motivating, and they love it.

“When you get young men in a clubhouse, or a changing room, it’s so far removed from school, which is a good thing.

“To practise resilience you need some adversity in life, it’s very hard to practise skills that underpin resilience without it.

“I think sport offers very safe, but very concrete, examples where young men can practise these skills.

“You think of getting injured, getting dropped, losing a final, these are things that are not the end of the world, they are upsetting at the time, but they’re very safe and concrete ways of starting to practise those skills that underpin resilience,” he said.

The program does not just single-out teenagers as their primary source, rather, Ahead of the Game undertakes sessions both with parents and coaches to identify their key role in the bigger picture.

“The core of the [parents] program is how to tell the difference, for lack of a better word, between what’s normal and what’s not normal,” Dr Vella said.

“Parents say things like, sleeping all day, being lethargic, low energy, are all signs of depression, but it’s also just teenage behaviour.

“With coaches, it’s along the same lines, but rather they don’t have such a role in recognition.

“For them it’s really about opening up dialogue, just talking to the adolescent and find out what’s going on, and pointing them in the right direction,” he said.

Movember’s Ahead of the Game program has gained traction across the globe, with links across the world, perhaps most notably, a partnership with the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) in 2021.

Dr Vella says it’s a shifting in the nature of thinking behind the seriousness of which mental health is now taken.

“It’s a real signal of a changing of the guard, and a real acceptance that this is part of sport organisations now to provide programs that are psychologically safe,” Dr Vella said.

“Initiatives like the mental fitness theme of the RLWC and having an official mental health program, solidify in the public mind that good mental health should be a part of sport.

“You are never going to take winning out of sport, so you’ve got to find a way where you are serving both in a way,” he said.

Speaking on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent shift to more online-based learning, Dr Vella said: “It has not been business as usual, it has been tough.”

“Ahead of the Game has been trying to role out programs across every home city of the UK, where a lot of that has been thwarted.

“It has been a real challenge,” he said.

With most workplaces and organisations during the pandemic, there has been a natural shift to the online sector, and Ahead of the Game has been no different.

“One of the great things that has come out of this is, we were able to make a really quick transition and redevelopment of the program to be online,” Dr Vella said.

“Movember trialled an online delivery of the program, which by all reports has gone really well.

“A huge thanks goes to them for having the foresight, the ability to be nimble, and the willingness to put their money into adapting the program.

“Ideally we’d be delivering face-to-face, that is part of Ahead of the Game, it’s in the clubhouse, it’s in the change room, you’re sweaty, you’re with your teammates, and you’re talking about mental health.

“This is what we see as a core component, but online is better than nothing,” he said.

Asked what the impact of the program would have on people in future, Dr Vella said: “What we’re really hoping to do for the vast majority of the young men that go through the program is facilitate the intention to seek help, improve the ability to recognise warning signs early, and improve the intention and knowledge to seek appropriate help.”

“If we can give those things, I think that is when you get really big benefits to mental health and well-being,” he told Ministry of Sport.