From Carey Price to Simone Biles: Evolving attitudes help athletes address mental health

Montreal Canadiens star Carey Price reignited the conversation about mental health in sports Thursday after announcing he would be stepping away from the team for undisclosed reasons.

A joint press release from the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) revealed that the 34-year-old goalie would be participating in the NHLPA assistance program, which helps players and their families with mental health, substance abuse and other matters.

And while specific details of his leave have not been discussed, Price’s wife took to Instagram Thursday posting about the importance of “putting your mental health first” while commending her husband for “showing up for himself and his family.”

Price is not the first, nor the last, professional athlete to take time away from sport to focus on their mental health. In fact, he isn’t the only Canadien.

Forward Jonathan Drouin recently rejoined the team after taking a five-month break due to battles with anxiety and insomnia.

During the Olympics, U.S. gymnast star Simone Biles inspired dozens of other Olympians to speak out about their battles with mental health after dropping out of several high-profile events in Tokyo.

In some ways, these athletes are sparking a watershed moment in sports – an industry where players are often portrayed to be tough and infallible, despite being placed under constant scrutiny.

“Competitive sport, at all levels, is a stressful environment. You are putting yourself on the line – by playing, by running, by competing – usually with lots of people watching,” Penny Werther, a sports psychologist who has worked with dozens of Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes, told by phone from Calgary Thursday.

“It’s so easy for the public in particular to criticize.”

Werther, who works one-on-one with high-level athletes as a mental performance coach, says athletes like Price are shedding light on how common it is for athletes to struggle mentally – a brave move she says is helping to evolve attitudes in sports.

“It takes one or two brave souls to step up and say I'm struggling psychologically and I need some help. And as we as a few more folks do that, then it becomes more normal to do so. And I don’t think it has been [normal] for years,” she said.

“Sport is like the last bastion of some of these things. Do we still have a fair bit of work to do? Absolutely.”

Despite mental health struggles being so common among athletes, Werther agrees there has long been an attitude among many sports that may have prevented athletes from speaking out sooner.

And while the highly competitive nature of sports throws even amateur athletes for a loop, social media and increased media attention on performance have added a new level of concern for pro athletes.

“The ability of people to be so critical when they've never had to step on the line and to sit back in the stands and say, ‘Oh, you should have done that, you should have done this.’ I mean, it's not easy being consistent night after night,” Werther said.

“I spend a fair bit of my time helping coaches understand how to create an environment that is both challenging and supportive at the same time – and that is totally doable. But so many coaches there are still 'old school' or just not as well-educated as they could be on how to push athletes and to challenge them and then create a supportive environment at the same time.”

It’s Werther’s hope that by coming forward, athletes like Price will make inroads for better mental health support and training for athletes, in addition to inspiring better sportsmanship in younger generations.

It's fantastic because it's going to normalize that for everyone, so they will feel more comfortable reaching out for help, which is what we want them to do,” she said.​