Mental health and wellbeing

Last updated: 21 Apr 2020

As knowledge and understanding of mental health and wellbeing grows and the pressures facing young people increase, it’s understandable that we’ll come into contact with more young people who are experiencing some sort of struggle with their mental health.

The Childline Annual Review 2018/19 found that 45 per cent of counselling sessions related to mental health and wellbeing. These covered a wide range of problems including self-harm and feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Mental health and wellbeing refers to how a person thinks, feels and manages their life experiences and any challenges. Just as we all have physical health, we all have mental health too.

People who have good mental health and wellbeing find it easier to manage their emotions and behaviours. They are likely to be able to cope well with the day to day stresses of life and will be able to actively take part in their social setting or community.

Someone who is experiencing poor mental health and wellbeing may be unable to control negative or unwanted thoughts or feelings. This may have an impact on their ability to function effectively, which may hinder their participation and enjoyment of activities, social interactions, sport or school. 

Some young people may feel they have a mental health problem or be experiencing poor wellbeing without having a specific medical diagnosis. This is where your awareness, understanding and ability to signpost to support services can be useful.


There are many terms used to describe the illnesses and conditions that can cause a problem with a person's mental health and wellbeing. We are using the term 'mental health problem' because we feel it encompasses a wide range of experiences. This is supported by feedback received by the mental health charity Mind that people prefer the word ‘problem’ rather than illness or condition.

It’s worth remembering that children and young people are likely to use phrases and words that they relate to when talking about their own experiences.

Additional concerns due to coronavirus

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has placed a number of additional pressures on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. As a result young people may be experiencing increased feelings of anxiety, low mood or loneliness and some will need additional support at this time. 

If your club or activity is keeping in touch with members virtually or taking part in remote coaching you can start a conversation by signposting young people to specialist services, such as Childline's coronavirus advice and Young Minds' coronavirus pages

Barriers and benefits

There is a wide range of mental health and wellbeing problems that can affect young people for many different reasons.

In the sport and activity sector we need to recognise that taking part in sport can have both a positive and negative influence on a young person’s mental health and wellbeing and try to minimise the risks where possible.


There are barriers that young people experiencing mental health and wellbeing problems may find hard to overcome when taking part in sport. These include:

  • body image issues – young people can feel worried about their physical appearance
  • disordered eating or eating disorders – some young people experiencing these may be too physically unwell to take part, or performance pressures may be part of their illness
  • social isolation or anxiety – young people might feel they can’t participate alongside other team members, despite wanting to take part in the sport itself
  • the side effects of medication can include things like excess sweating, lethargy or weight gain or loss

Unique stressors in sport

We’re now beginning to realise that there are some stressors that can affect young people that are unique to sport. These can be even more pronounced where elite athletes are concerned.

Some of the things that should be taken into consideration are:

  • the pressure to perform
  • comparisons with peers around ability, appearance or popularity
  • maintaining, gaining, losing or ‘making’ weight to qualify or feel accepted in the sport
  • the strain of finding, maintaining or potentially losing sponsorship or contracts
  • an increased risk of online or cyber bullying, due to their raised profile
  • dealing with media scrutiny and a lack of privacy
  • balancing personal and professional commitments
  • maintaining healthy relationships with peers
  • coping with the transitions between grassroots to elite level sport and into retirement, either planned or unplanned
  • the fear of injury and being put out of the game or forced to retire
  • managing the emotional highs and lows of sporting careers
  • sport being tied strongly with an individual’s identity – the risk here becomes apparent when young people leave sport and can feel a loss of this identity

The benefits of sport

We all know that taking part in physical activity releases endorphins, which have a positive effect on our mental health and wellbeing. It has also been shown that being active can give people a new focus, a sense of achievement, better sleep patterns and help build new relationships with others.

The Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK wrote a position statement to state their belief that physical activity can and should be used as a form of treatment for certain mental health and wellbeing problems.

Therefore, it’s more important than ever that sports and activities make their sessions as accessible to those with mental health and wellbeing problems as they are to those with physical disabilities.

What sports can do

There are several things that sports organisations can do to contribute towards the ongoing mental wellbeing of their participants, as well as supporting those experiencing mental health problems.

Creating a healthy environment

Sports organisations should always aim to create environments where young people feel safe and supported. This could include:

  • all staff being trained in basic mental health awareness with an ability to use the correct language and challenge discrimination
  • all staff having a general understanding of the pressures that young people might face as a result of competitive sport
  • a welcoming, inclusive club that treats everyone from all race, faiths, genders and any other demographic markers, as an individual with their own needs
  • safeguarding leads that feel confident they could identify and refer young people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • challenge and address instances of poor negative, aggressive, racist, homophobic, transphobic or sexist bullying behaviour amongst young people
  • staff that ask how young people feel about taking part, listen to their answers and offer help and support if needed
  • an organisation that respects its members and their feeling
  • a healthy competitiveness that embraces personal development as well as results or wins
  • promoting the details of mental health support services and making them available to young people (see the 'Resources' tab)
  • staff that know where and how to raise any serious concerns about a young person’s wellbeing, including internal reporting procedures, the NSPCC helpline and the police – if they believe a young person is at an immediate risk of harm

Supportive coaching

A coach is likely to have more direct contact with young people than some of the other volunteers or staff involved in the sport or activity.

It’s therefore important to make sure that these interactions between the coach and the young person are conducive to their mental health and wellbeing.

Some ways to do this are to:

  • seek an understanding of mental health and wellbeing, through training or research
  • demonstrate a positive attitude towards talking and openness about issues such as diet, exercise and social interaction
  • learn about the effects that mental health and wellbeing problems or treatment can have on a young person’s willingness or ability to take part
  • listen to young people about what they feel capable of doing at different stages of their development and make changes where possible
  • encourage physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle
  • learn about strategies such as resilience and building self-esteem that can help young people with mental health problems to recover

Changes in organisational policies

Part of creating a healthy environment for young people means making sure that staff, volunteers, young people and parents all feel equipped to look after the mental health and wellbeing of those taking part in the sport.

This can be addressed by having clear policies in place, by either supporting your safeguarding policy with a mental health and wellbeing statement, or adding mental health and wellbeing guidance into your existing safeguarding policy. Your policy statement must be seen in practice so ensure that your systems match what you say in your policy. 

This statement or policy should be promoted and made available to all. This should help to encourage young people with mental health and wellbeing problems to take up, or carry on, enjoying sport as part of an active lifestyle.  

Through this statement or policy your organisation can demonstrate your commitment to protecting the mental health and wellbeing of the young people taking part in your sport or activity and what that will look like in practice, including how to deal with concerns or reports of self-harm or suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Develop a culture of psychological safety

Safeguarding is all about keeping individuals safe and protected from harm, whether that be physical or emotional. An important part of keeping young people safe in sport involves creating an environment where mental health and wellbeing is prioritised and children can thrive.

In recent years, the importance of psychological safety in sport has started to become recognised.

Psychological safety refers to an environment where individuals can take risks, express ideas or concerns, ask questions, be themselves, and acknowledge mistakes – without worrying about any negative consequences. It’s a culture that promotes a sense of trust and respect where individuals don’t feel judged and can be their authentic self without wearing a mask. This kind of community can help people feel able to put themselves out there and maximise their potential.

Why is psychological safety important in sport?

Sport can have an amazing impact on young people, but the environment can often be challenging, particularly for talented and elite athletes. Athletes may regularly have to compete against others, endure difficult training regimes, or find themselves under pressure. Sometimes, young people may also encounter poor leadership, team hostility, or challenging relationships.

Because of this, young athletes might be more susceptible to mental health challenges like stress and anxiety.

A psychologically safe culture helps to create an environment where young people can thrive, even in a high-pressure environment. This can act as a protective factor for ill mental health, as well as contribute several benefits to wellbeing. For instance, it can:

  • improve individual confidence and self-esteem
  • reduce stress and burnout
  • build a sense of community support and help prevent loneliness
  • promote inclusion and value every voice
  • encourage personal growth
  • foster a culture where mental health is normalised and help-seeking is encouraged

What’s more, as well as positively impacting individual wellbeing, psychologically safety can also benefit a team. When athletes in a team feel safe in their sporting environment, research shows there is higher levels of care and respect between teammates, better communication and trust, and an increased ability to make decisions under pressure. These traits build for more resilient, innovative, and adaptable teams.

Can psychological safety lead to better performance?

Although more research is needed, emerging evidence shows a positive relationship between psychological safety and overall performance. Athletes who feel safe are more likely to take risks, see mistakes as learning opportunities, communicate better with teammates and coaches, and raise concerns if they have any. As a result, overall performance may improve.

How can sports organisations develop a psychologically safe culture?

Creating a psychologically safe culture involves thinking about several factors such as leadership, communication, and team relationships. Download our poster on psychological safety for some key tips that organisations can follow to create a culture of psychological safety and promote the wellbeing and performance of their athletes.

Related documents

Taking care of yourself

With the average UK employee spending over 80,000 hours working in their lifetime, looking after our wellbeing at work is really important.

There are a variety of factors in the workplace which might influence how happy or well we feel. For instance, working environment, management and colleagues, progression opportunities, working hours and shift patterns, workload and safety, personal circumstances, and whether a workplace culture aligns with our own values, can all influence our time at work and our overall happiness.

For professionals who work in safeguarding, wellbeing may be further impacted by the emotive nature of the work.

The emotional impact of working in safeguarding

Working in safeguarding can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be challenging.

Responding to safeguarding concerns often involves listening to and handling difficult, stressful, or traumatic circumstances, as well as empathetically engaging with vulnerable children and adults. It’s normal for safeguarding professionals to experience feelings such as upset, shock, or anger, which may go on to impact general wellbeing over time.

It’s also common for those working in safeguarding to experience something called vicarious trauma. This is when exposure to traumatic situations and helping others through challenging circumstances impacts the supporting individual’s own mental health. Vicarious trauma impacts everyone differently, but some common signs include:

  • longstanding negative feelings around a person’s victimisation, including self-doubt, pessimism, guilt, or rage
  • being unable to switch off outside of work and difficulty maintaining a work-life balance
  • dissociation, avoidance, or numbness either at work, home, or both
  • feeling very on edge
  • difficulty maintaining professional boundaries
  • nightmares, panic attacks, or flashbacks
  • experiencing stress-related health conditions

For some people, vicarious trauma can significantly impact their mental health, leading to conditions such as chronic stress or burnout.

Self-care for safeguarding professionals

Given the risks of working with trauma, it’s incredibly important that safeguarding professionals take steps to actively look after their mental health and wellbeing. Self-care can help you to cope with the challenging emotions, vicarious trauma, and other work challenges you might encounter in your role, as well as help you feel able to effectively support those you work with.

Self-care can be different for everyone – what works for you might not work for someone else. We’ve put together a few evidence-based self-care tips for you to try:

1. Find your boundaries

As a natural helper, it’s common to want to be there for colleagues or those you are supporting. Safeguarding can also be a very fast-paced environment with lots of emerging changes, and you might feel a pressure to work quickly, or work beyond your hours.

However, it’s important to protect your own time and ensure you only take on a workload that is realistic and within your scope of responsibilities. Saying ‘no’ can feel really hard, especially when you are well intentioned and want to help. But in the long run, having boundaries can help you achieve a better work-life balance and reduce the risk of overwhelm and stress.

2. Identify a support network

Being able to lean on others and having good social networks is one of the greatest ways to help cope when working with trauma. Regularly connecting with colleagues, family, and friends can help you to feel less isolated in any challenges, give you an outlet when needed, and help you to feel valued and confident.

You don’t need a huge network either – just a handful of close contacts can offer a sense of emotional support.

3. Make time to switch off

When working in a time sensitive environment like safeguarding, it can feel impossible to take breaks. However, without time away from work, you run the risk of developing burnout or other mental health illnesses – which usually require much more time off work.

Make sure to schedule regular breaks throughout your day, as well as time away from work to switch off. Continuing with hobbies, socialising, and other daily life activities can help you to disconnect from work and recover from stress. This allows you to protect your wellbeing as well as help you feel more energised and productive at work.

You are more than just your job and ensuring time away from work is crucial to your mental health and sense of self.

4. Regularly ‘check in’ with yourself

There is no set response to trauma or challenging events. Some people might take weeks or months to process a difficult situation, whereas others might feel impacted straight away. Taking time each day to check in with yourself and understand your feelings can help you notice any changes in your thoughts, attitudes, or behaviours.

You might start to see some warning signs or patterns that signify you might be struggling mentally. Perhaps your work has started piling up? Maybe you feel more irritable than normal? Have you stopped speaking with others so much?

Try working with your supervisor (either within your organisation or other trusted organisations) to create a Wellness Action Plan that helps you identify any triggers or warning signs you might have. Regularly using this – or other methods of consciously understanding your emotions, such as journaling - to keep checking in with yourself allows you to implement any coping mechanisms before you get to breaking point.

5. Ask for help

Working in safeguarding can be challenging, but you are not in this alone. There are various ways you can seek support, including:

Your team and colleagues

Debriefing with people who just ‘get it’ can really help you to feel less isolated after a challenging event. Chatting with supportive and understanding colleagues helps to process what has happened, review any misconceptions, work through challenging emotions, and build a network of people who look out for each other. Your organisation also has a responsibility for your wellbeing at work, so it’s important to talk to your supervisor if there is anything in the workplace that is impacting your mental health.

A mental health professional

if you are struggling with your emotions, there is no shame in seeking wellbeing support from a professional. Your organisation might have an Employee Assistance Programme, dedicated wellbeing personnel, or connections with other organisations. Of course, you can also seek support from your GP or other mental health organisations too.

If you are in a crisis and need to talk to someone right now, contact Samaritans, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123, or emailing You should also call 999 if you do not feel that you can keep yourself safe from harm.

PAPYRUS debrief service

PAPYRUS, a suicide prevention charity, runs a debrief service to support professionals who have had an experience with suicide and would like to talk to a trained professional. Call HOPELINE247 on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967, or email

NSPCC Whistleblowing Helpline

Worried about how safeguarding is handled in your organisation but not sure where to turn? We are here to help. The Whistleblowing Advice Line offers free advice and support to professionals concerned about how child protection issues are handled in their workplace. Call 0800 028 0285 or email

As a safeguarding professional, you play a vital role in keeping young children safe from abuse, and it can be an extremely fulfilling career. However, you can’t pour from an empty cup. It’s essential to take time to look after yourself and seek support when it’s needed.

Further resources


The following resources can help you to support children and young people's mental health and wellbeing. 

CPSU resources

Support and resources for coaches, staff and volunteers

Mental health awareness training

Support services for children and young people