Mental Health in Martial Arts - The White Elephant in the Room
Tackling a huge subject here and one that is often not an easy one to either read or talk about. The topic of Mental Health in Martial Arts covers a vast array of different aspects that are well worth going through. A little context though before we go any further. I am no expert in Mental Health and I would not claim to be. It is however an issue that I have dealt with on numerous occasions throughout my life. Two of my close family members have disabilities that impact on their day to day living. One of whom actively worked for a disability rights organisation for a long time. This meant that I have been involved with volunteering at numerous events since I was of an age where I could be of practical use.
This growing up in a liberal environment, having constant contact with people who had physical disabilities and meeting people with mental health problems had a profound impact on my outlook on life. It is possibly why my own personal ethos around coaching Martial Arts is one of inclusivity, understanding and trying to help people (as opposed to just concentrating on competitive success).
When I first went into full time work (long before Martial Arts was a paid career for me), I went into the Education, Social Work and Youth Offending services. I worked specifically with young people (and their families) who for one reason or another struggled to cope with life. Although I studied Law at University, I did take part in a lot of various Mental Health related training/courses whilst in these sectors to improve my ability to support those that I worked with.
Now, I am going to share with you something that only my wife has ever been aware of (apart from doctors, medical professionals etc). It's crazy, even though I desperately want to help others, I am not always keen to open up and be honest about that which affects me (I am a pretty introverted and private individual). I am writing this post even though I have never told my friends or any other member of my family. Blogs are cathartic I guess ha ha. Okay, deep breath, this is bigger for me then you may realise....
I have been diagnosed as suffering from moderate to severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and have suffered with the condition since I was a young teenager. I am classed as primarily obsessive as opposed to compulsive i.e. which means I am literally an over thinker ha ha.
It impacts my life in some way every single day, although some periods are worse than others. I have been through points in my life where my world effectively closed down and I would go out of my way to avoid certain things. At it's worst my mind can feel like my worst enemy. I am not in a bad place at present (although I still have daily trigger points which I can't seem to shake myself of). Finally seeking help a number of years ago (I opened up to my wife about it, went to the doctors and got referred for CBT), things have gotten a lot better since that point.
I have prescribed medication but I actually never use it. I definitely did not want to be in a place where I relied on pills. I do however carry them around with me for the placebo effect it has i.e. the comforting thought that if I ever fall apart somewhere then I will have them to use ha ha. In a funny way I think my OCD defines me. It often makes me better at the things that I do. I just have to keep a cap on it otherwise my head explodes ha ha!
Fast forward to the present day and because of all of the above, I am a passionate advocate for helping those in need. Getting back to the post in hand though.... Most people (coaches, fighters and students) within the world of Martial Arts are often primarily concerned with their physical health and development i.e. how fit they are, how technically proficient they are etc. This is exacerbated even more if they are competing at an elite or professional level.
As Martial Artist's, we train hard, we spar, we grapple and we compete in order to push ourselves to becoming the best that we can be. We admire skill, strength and achievements in others. We strive for perfection and we passionately desire to rid ourselves of any weaknesses (real or perceived) so that we can become better today than we were yesterday. Unfortunately though, this sort of an environment (just as it often is in the armed services) can create a place where it may become increasingly difficult to talk about what is often perceived as being a taboo subject, mental health.
I am of the opinion that everyone's mental health (just like physical health) will have difficulties or issues at some point in their life (some more so than others of course). Imagine a scenario where someone has never been sick a day in their life or has never suffered any kind of injury from the moment they were born to the day they passed away. Seems pretty unlikely doesn't it? I feel that is exactly the same with people's mental wellbeing. But, because we don't like to talk about it, it can often seem to those suffering the most that they are on their own in feeling this way. I know from my own experiences that shame can also come into this. A lot of people don't want to admit they are having difficulties because of the stigma that surrounds these problems.
Nowadays there is a greater understanding around mental health than there ever has been before. A lot of doctors and medical professionals actually advise those that come to them with difficulties to exercise more in order to help alleviate the issues. Some even go so far as to recommend martial arts training specifically for the many benefits it offers those that take part in them. This is all great. Unfortunately though, as recent tragic events within the Martial Arts community have shown, this is not something we can be complacent about. Mental health issues CAN and DO affect everyone. Coaches, fighters and students are all equally as susceptible as one another to succumbing to difficulties.
I think the Martial Arts community is the perfect place to support those with current Mental Health issues and help offset any that arise with individuals going forward. Go into any gym, club or school and you will see friends, exercise, support networks, positivity and much more. All of which are key factors when assisting people to develop or retain positive Mental Health. Where are we going wrong then? Well, I think we need to bring Mental Health to the forefront of what we do. We need to be as passionate about each others Mental wellbeing as we are about physical prowess and accomplishments. We need to remove the stigma of Mental Health being discussed or acknowledged openly. This is no easy task though.
As I said earlier in the post, I am no expert in Mental Health. But, I would like to think I know a lot about the Martial Arts Community. I have written below a simple statement that can be hung up in any gym (preferably in multiple areas where people can read it), inserted into any membership literature or copied/reposted onto any website.
You can download a PDF copy here Mental Health. This statement makes it clear that as a gym you are a keen supporter of both physical and mental health. Just having this up can make a big difference. Most people who suffer feel that they are on their own with no one to talk to. I know that from my own experiences, things improved as my stress reduced. My stress reduced when I felt that I had people I could talk to if I needed it and that there were things I could be doing to improve my condition. Thus, you can have a positive impact on people simply by having this statement up, being genuine if anyone comes to you seeking help and knowing where to turn if more specialised support is necessary. At the bottom of the statement are key contacts for people should they need urgent help.
We are lucky in the UK to have professional organisations and charities dedicated to Mental Health such as MIND who can be contacted for advice, more in-depth literature (in the form of amazing, free of charge PDF's, leaflets and posters) and support. You can speak to them direct as I have done if you would like to learn more on this subject or to help support them with all the great work they do on a daily basis.
Martial Arts is no cure-all for Mental Health issues (I really wish it was). However, I truly believe it may well be one of the best activities for people to engage in, both to help alleviate any pre existing conditions or problems and to develop substantial strength of mind to offset the likelihood or impact of potential difficulties further down the line. I think training in Martial Arts has been what has saved me from deeper struggles in my own life.
That is why I am as passionate as I am about other people doing it as well. I want them to get all the same benefits from active participation that I have got from my time on the mats. What will make the Martial Arts even more effective in this though is a community wide approach to ensuring that Mental Health is put firmly at the front of our aims for those that train and take part. It will benefit ourselves as individuals to be more understanding to the issues faced by others as it will allow a deeper connection with those around us. It will benefit all those who are affected or may be affected in the future to know that there is somewhere that supports them if they need it. We cannot of course help everyone. But, it is worth attempting to. Even if we only reach one person and help them, then any energy we expend in this matter will have been worth it!
So, if you notice someone in your gym seems off or even treats you in a way that may be construed as negative, remember that just like an iceberg, there may be a mountain of problems under the surface impacting on the way that they view and/or interact with the world. It is easy to ignore, segregate or be equally negative back. No one would blame you if you took this approach. Hell, they are the ones who are difficult to be around. However, if you truly want to be a great martial artist then that means truly wanting to be a great human being. Look around you every day and see who can really gain from some positive interaction. You never know just how much of an impact this can make on someone who is going through a hard time. Be the change you want to see in the world.....
I hope you have enjoyed this reading this article on mental health in martial arts. Please do get in touch if you would like to ask me any further questions on anything that I have written. If you are affected by anything here and wish to find out more, please go to MIND over at www.mind.org.uk for further reading, assistance and more specific contact details. If your issues are more serious and of a pressing concern to your general health or wellbeing, please go and see your doctor today or visit your local A&E department in order get the help you need.
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