World Mental Health Day Q&A with… Kanyali Ilako

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Country: Kenya

Profession: Sports and Performance Psychologist

Kanyali is a trained and certified Sports and Performance Psychologist in private practice at Brainfrees Consultancies in Nairobi, Kenya. Kanyali comes with a diverse background of having represented her country as a professional athlete, and now works with Olympic athletes and federations. She volunteers as an Intellectual Impairment classifier for the Paralympics and has worked as a psychological skills training seminar supervisor at the University of Thessaly in Greece.

For you, what is the difference between mental toughness and mental health?

Mental toughness is a choice – it involves purposely taking steps to challenge yourself and develop mental muscle. However, no matter how strong you become, mental muscles doesn’t mean you can’t also suffer from mental health issues. Basically, being mentally strong or tough Isn’t the same as being mentally healthy because even people with strong mental muscles can develop depression or anxiety.

What stigma still exists within Track & Field when it comes to mental health issues?

Mental health issues affect one in three elite athletes which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. The elite sports culture, with its heavy training demands and constant drive to improve performance, only serves to heighten this risk. Poor understanding of mental illness, busy schedules, and gender stereotyping also play their part in stigmatizing mental illness.

What (if any) changes have happened within Track & Field over the past few years to better support athletes’ mental health? And what still needs to be done?

There has been a rapid increase in research examining the mental health of elite athletes by the International Olympic Committee which centres mostly on building mental health literacy or awareness of the signs of mental ill-health amongst athletes. Such awareness is necessary, but still not sufficient to address the varied mental health needs of elite athletes. I believe every athlete and team should have a sports psychologist as part of their core team not just as a professional but as a budding athlete as well.

What type of issues do you mostly see in your work with athletes?

A lot of the athletes I have worked with have been of African descent or living in Africa and even though there has been an improvement with how we view mental health, I still have some athletes shy away from seeking my services as it is seen as a sign of weakness and not part of the culture as people have been encouraged to just ” move on” without fully dealing with the problem and this affects them later in their careers, sometimes when it’s too late. Career transitioning or retirement due to injury is another issue that really affects athletes and if they don’t have the right guidance and help during this time, many can develop depression.