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Ulster University academics have coordinated an international study on mental health awareness in sport which creates a new framework for applying practices and analysing the impact of mental wellbeing in sport.

The internationally recognised study, in the form of a consensus statement published in the BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine, has created minimum guidelines for the use of mental health initiatives in sporting environments, with the aim of the study to increase the understanding of the links between sporting participation and improved mental health.

10 countries were involved in the development of this statement and it is expected that the work will help guide mental health intervention design for players, coaches, officials and sporting organisations, both in elite and non-elite fields.

The framework provides evidence-based guidance for selecting mental health awareness and implementation programmes in sport which acknowledge diversity and are quality assured at all stages.

Having led on the development of the new standards for practice, Ulster University is now offering support to national organisations in applying these principles to their sports clubs and teams, who will be at the forefront of the new methodologies which will guide mental health innovations in sport.

Project lead, Dr Gavin Breslin is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Ulster University. He commented:

“Research on mental health in sport has lagged behind other areas of mental health support, and has revealed the need to develop evidence-supported mental health practices that are sensitive to sport culture, for both elite and  non-elite athletes.

“This international consensus statement was produced to assist effective development of mental health awareness programmes in sport and guide effective implementation in this rapidly emerging field.

“Guidelines for implementation and evaluation of mental health programmes in a non-elite sporting context are crucial due to the vast participation of sports at all levels in Northern Ireland and beyond. We firmly believe that all participants across the life course of sport will benefit from supporting mental health optimisation.”

The statement creates a framework structure which includes; definitions and terminology which can be operationalised when promoting mental health awareness, key design principles such as; choice of psychological behaviour change theory, target populations, stakeholder involvement and delivery sites, outcomes to measure programme effectiveness; and methods for conducting and reporting interventions with sporting population groups (e.g. coaches, athletes and officials).

With the rapid expansion of evidence-based public mental health awareness programmes in sport, revealing the need for improvements to mental health programme conception; design and measurement; delivery methods; use of theory; and evaluation approaches in sport, Ulster University has sought to lead the way on best practice leveraging sporting, academic and health research.

A key impact from the research will be to continue to inform the actions from the Wellbeing in Sport Action Plan for Northern Ireland and inform sporting associations in other countries of the process of developing such plans to protect their athletes wellbeing. For example, a review of current policy related to community sport, physical activity and mental health in England concluded that measurable and specific targets for tracking positive change related to mental health and illness have not been outlined in much government policy. This consensus statement aims to change this situation and promote mental health and wellbeing in sport.

The full study is available to read online.