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Former Raven/Gee-Gee now supporting athletes’ mental health with Game Plan

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By Madalyn Howitt

Viewers of the Tokyo Paralympic and Olympic Games may have noticed that more and more, athletes are openly discussing the issue of mental health in sports. One of the biggest stories during the Olympics was Simone Biles withdrawing from most of her gymnastics events to take care of her mental health, and tennis star Naomi Osaka continues to be vocal about her struggles with mental illness and the pressures of competitions.

That’s where organizations like Game Plan come in. It’s a total wellness program for Canada’s high-performance athletes, including members of Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic teams. It’s structured around five pillars of support for athletes: Career prepares athletes for professional life after they stop competing in sports; Community builds athletes’ networks; Education supports athletes who wish to study while balancing sports; Skill Development teaches public speaking and financial skills; and the Health pillar supports athletes with their mental health and wellness.

Krista Van Slingerland. Photo: Twitter

The health pillar is where Krista Van Slingerland sits. She’s the mental health manager for Game Plan and is responsible for the implementation of the Mental Health Strategy for High Performance Sport in Canada, ensuring that the Canadian sport system has world-class mental health programming and support.

Van Slingerland’s path towards Game Plan stemmed from her own struggles with mental health in sport. She lived in Ottawa for 10 years and was an Academic All-Canadian varsity basketball player at the university level, but it was during that time that Van Slingerland was sidelined on the court by her struggles with depression and anxiety.

“At that time, around 2011, coaches and teammates just really didn’t know how to support me,” she shared. “When you’re not contributing anymore to a team sport, the tendency is to push you to the side. I felt like there was just such a lack of understanding. It was my first time going through that and I didn’t know what to ask for what I needed.

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“Because mental illness is stigmatized [and] invisible, I was kind of cast-out.”

That’s what got Van Slingerland interested in mental health and wellness in high-performance sport. After finding help for her own mental health, she went on to co-found the Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative, now a charity working to protect and promote the mental health of university and college student athletes in Canada.

Her work with SAMI led her to perform the first-ever study on the mental health of student-athletes in Canadian university sport, which later spiralled into creating the Canadian Center for Mental Health and Sport.

Her lived and professional experience has now led her to Game Plan, one of the few official organizations in the world dealing directly with mental health wellness in sport.

“A lot of the challenges in sport that precipitate mental illness or make it harder for athletes has a lot to do with sport culture and the toxic and challenging nature of it, so it’s not going to be something that we change overnight,” said Van Slingerland. “That the system has invested in my role though means we can actually do something about it.”

Van Slingerland said the uptake of mental health services has increased significantly this year – the center itself has seen about a 300% increase in referrals and people needing support.

“You’ll notice it’s a lot of women coming forward,” said Van Slingerland about athletes sharing their struggles publicly, pointing out that Osaka and Biles are two high-profile examples. “We’re also seeing a lot of athletes who are still competing sharing those difficulties, whereas before we’d see [athletes] who were long retired sharing that they had struggles,” she added.

Van Slingerland said one of the goals of Game Plan during these Games is to call each Canadian athlete when they return home.

“We really want to check in and make those connections and let athletes know what’s available to them in terms of resources,” she explained, noting the response from athletes to the phone calls has been encouraging. “They’ve been really pleased that somebody has taken the time to call them or email them and make them feel a little bit special.”

Normally athletes returning from the Games would be invited to official celebrations that can no longer be held safely in the pandemic.

“There’s a phenomenon called the post-Olympic, post-Paralympic blues, which is very prevalent among athletes and coaches because they have had this really incredible experience that no one understands, and this time around they didn’t have the time and space to process it while they were still in that environment,” she said.

Van Slingerland is proud that she’s able to draw from her own experiences and help reshape the way organizations support athletes’ mental health.

“A terrible and really difficult life event has taken me down this really beautiful path that I am really grateful for,” she said.

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