Medical experts from across Scottish sport united at a conference at Hampden Park today to discuss one of the biggest taboos in sport – the prevalence of mental health issues amongst athletes.

The Mental Health in Scottish Sport Conference aimed to raise awareness of mental health issues in sport and to demonstrate the good work being done in Scotland, whilst sharing best practice and working together for the benefits of Scottish athletes.

The inherent risk of injury to professional and high-performance athletes is well documented but until recently, the risk to mental health has not had the same profile. Despite the public perception that elite athletes are immune from mental health problems, research has shown the issues surrounding life as an elite sportsperson actually increases the risk of suffering a mental health problem.

Work has been going on behind the scenes to understand the unique pressures faced by athletes and their families, and programmes are in place to ensure they get the specialist help and support they need as quickly as possible.

Today’s conference, organised by the Hampden Sports Clinic in conjunction with the Scottish FA, PFA Scotland, sportscotland, Scottish Rugby and Breathing Space, is designed to raise awareness of the issue, to highlight the work that is already being done and to share best practice across the industry.

Mental Health Minister Clare Haughey said: “We want everyone across Scotland to be able to get the right help at the right time, free from stigma and discrimination.

“Mental health and wellbeing is everyone’s business, not just for the NHS – so it’s great to see delegates from the NHS and a wide range of sports organisations and clubs, as well as colleagues from academia and the third sector getting involved.

“Strong research is now emerging to support the links between physical activity and positive mental wellbeing and we want to help everyone to be more active, more often. It’s also important that we recognise the mental and physical wellbeing of athletes within high performance sport – and this event provides an excellent opportunity for discussion across sectors.”

Dr John MacLean, Chief Executive of Hampden Sports Clinic and the Scottish FA’s Medical Consultant explains why the conference is so important: “Having identified the scale of mental health issues in Scottish football and common underlying factors we have successfully provided expert clinical input through the “Support Within Sport” programme.

“With the excellent work being done by other sporting, Governmental and voluntary groups this conference is about sharing best practice and discussing with colleagues as to the future provision of mental health support for our athletes.”

In 2015, Hampden Sports Clinic’s Dr Katy Stewart received funding from UEFA to research the incidence of mental health issues across the 42 clubs in the Scottish Professional Football League.

Over 600 responses to the survey were received with 64% saying that they or a team mate had experienced mental health issues.

As a result of the research, the ‘Support within Sport’ initiative was launched to provide an essential service for players and coaching staff by allowing almost immediate access to a specialist network of doctors, counsellors and psychologists.

Scottish FA Chief Executive Ian Maxwell said: “The Scottish FA is dedicated to ensuring that the mental health and wellbeing of footballers in Scotland is taken seriously.

“Given the importance of mental health, it is our intention to be at the leading edge of support services offered to footballers, particularly through the “Support Within Sport” programme.

“Events such as today are so important to us and shows that we are working in tandem with other Scottish sporting governing bodies which allows invaluable opportunities to exchange knowledge and share best practice in this field.”

Athletes at the top of their game are revered as heroes and legends, but underneath the surface they may be battling crippling anxiety and depression just to get on the pitch or to the start line. Athletes including Scotland rugby international Fraser Brown and World Champion speed skater, Elise Christie, addressed the conference to share their experience.

Across sport, more athletes are coming forward to share their stories in a bid to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues and to spread the message that it’s okay not to be okay.

Athletes like swimmer Michael Jamieson and speed skater Elise Christie have both recently spoken publicly about the depression that has impacted on their performances and on their personal lives. They are not alone.

Delegates at today’s conference included doctors and medical staff from football and rugby clubs, along with practitioners from the sportscotland institute of sport. In addition to this a number of athletes, academics and representatives from the voluntary sector also attended.