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.

Taking care of yourself

You may recognise that you are experiencing problems with your own mental health and wellbeing. It may be advisable to follow some self-care advice, particularly for those adults who are responsible for managing safeguarding and child protection issues. There are also several things that can be implemented to help maintain positive mental health in the workplace.

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 has recently written 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.

Related documents


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