Given that Australia has a problem with alcohol and drug use in the general population it is not surprising that there is also a problem amongst elite athletes. High performance athletes face unique pressures and expectations from coaches, families, peers and the media that can create a vulnerability or susceptibility to dangerous practices. They also place high expectations on themselves and this is often the strongest driving force for an athlete to perform and potentially the most damaging to their self esteem and understanding of their own self worth. Performance problems due to illness, injury or lack of form all place mounting pressure on the already stressed individual. Performance enhancing drug use is long-standing in sport, as is the culture of recreational drug and alcohol use. The abuse and misuse of prescription drugs for performance and injury management has become increasingly notable.
With the recent media and political attention focused on this problem many sporting codes have developed stringent policies to educate and protect their athletes and anti-doping agencies such as ASADA and WADA have created explicit guidelines and testing procedures to enforce these and other national and international guidelines. As a result I would expect to see more help-seeking behavior for this problem amongst athletes, their sporting clubs and their families.
In addition to the vulnerabilities inherent to the elite sporting environment, athletes are also susceptible to the same risk factors for illicit drug use as the rest of the population and this consideration is crucial to counseling athletes effectively. Empathy and understanding of mental health issues, career circumstances and consequences, medical issues or injuries and family situation and support are all key considerations in understanding and then supporting change in elite athletes.
Coaches, families and peers all play a role in helping athletes identify problem behaviour and sporting clubs often mandate some form of counseling in their approach to changing these behaviours. Changing damaging or self-destructive patterns of behavior is crucial to leading a healthier life and often to continue participating in sport.
Some problem behavior that is indicative of drug or alcohol abuse is easier to identify than others especially if recreational drug use is the issue. The use of performance enhancing drugs or the misuse of prescription drugs can be more difficult to detect. It is important to look for changes in mood and behavior as with other mental health issues. Changes in weight, stomach or bowel complaints, headaches and poor performance can be a hint as can changes in sleeping patterns. If you notice or suspect that there may be a problem in someone you care about or if you suspect that you no longer have control over your own behavior and are concerned that this may impact your sporting or personal life, seek confidential support and advice so that you can best determine how to live a healthier life all round.