Athlete suicide shines spotlight on mental health education in young people

Recently, details of the tragic suicide of young athlete Ellie Soutter emerged and the scenario is pretty shocking – but it also follows a familiar pattern that shines a light on some serious shortcomings in the way we educate young people about their mental health.

Ellie, 18, was a world-class snowboarder who won a bronze medal for Team GB at the 2017 European Youth Olympic Winter Festival. She had a loving family, lots of friends and was at the start of a dream career.

She had been selected for the British team for the Junior World Championships in New Zealand in August and was tipped to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

However, she missed a flight to join the GB squad for training and disappeared from the French ski resort of Les Gets shortly afterwards. It later emerged that she took her own life on her 18th birthday.

“Ellie wanted to be the best and not let anybody down,” Ellie’s dad, Tony, said speaking to BBC South East. “Unfortunately it all came about from missing a flight which then meant she didn’t go training with the GB squad.

“She felt she’d let them down, felt she’d let me down and just tragically it just takes one silly little thing like that to tip someone over the edge, because there’s a lot of pressure on children.”

Citing the pressure Ellie was under, and revealing a pre-existing mental health issue, her father added: “Mental health awareness needs to be really looked at and made more public.”

Mr Soutter is absolutely right, but the issue is more fundamental than just awareness. Ellie would have undoubtedly had many hundreds of hours of coaching to prepare herself physically for her career and competitions, so why was her mental health not addressed in the same way?

She could compete at a world-class level physically but her team had clearly not prepared her mentally for the challenges and pressures she faced as an athlete. If they had, she might still be with us today.

More broadly, why isn’t every child – athlete or not – taught how to be mentally fit and healthy in the same way that PE, reading and writing is compulsory at schools around the world?

We’re in the midst of a worsening mental health crisis – we could cite any number of statistics about young people being prescribed antidepressants (ineffective and deeply unhelpful in many cases) or being diagnosed with mental health issues at very young ages – and the only way to beat the problem is mental health training and education at every stage of a young life.

Despite being manned by hard-working and well-meaning people, most current mental health treatment pathways have a fundamentally flawed model of treatment – the duel sticking plasters of CBT and medication – that simply doesn’t work for most people.

It’s like going to hospital with a broken leg and the specialists only putting the leg in plaster – they’re not fixing the break in the first place. The treatment does not address the fundamental reasons the person ended up with a mental health issue in the first place.

This is because a lot of mental health care is based on the idea that faulty brain chemistry is to blame for many mental health issues, and that depression and anxiety can be cured by medication and a short course of therapy. The brain chemistry model is now widely discredited, or cited as only being part of a wider number of causes.

But most of the medical profession is a slow-moving entity that takes many years to change tack when it comes to treatment models, even if they’re not effective – there are also lots of charities who are offering similar models who need to think about the way they operate and treat people and how effective this really is.

They are well meaning but poorly equipped when it comes to offering tools to help people really overcome mental health challenges to the point where someone won’t be driven to suicide when they encounter hurdles in life, as most of us do.

UK Sport – the Government’s administrative body that directs elite-level sport development – said in response to Ellie’s death: “We are working with all of our Olympic and Paralympic programmes and the mental health charity Mind to make sure appropriate support is in place.”

Of course we need support when someone seeks it, but it’d be many times more effective and save many more lives if we inoculated young people against poor mental health through evidence-led education programmes in the first place.

We need to move away from the existing, institutionalised modus operandi of treatment and ‘support’ and begin addressing the root cause of mental health issues using training and education, rather than offering medication and ineffective solutions like CBT when someone raises their hand with a problem.

We need to teach young people how their mental health really works and how to manage it so it works for them, not against. We need to teach everyone that it’s not OK to not be mentally fit, because there’s something you can do about it. You can be mentally healthy for life and in charge of your mental wellness.

We need to teach them that mental health is not magical and mysterious, but actually quite manageable and predictable. We need to make good mental health available to all by educating rather than medicalising young people. Only then will stories like Ellie’s become rare and unusual, rather than a daily tragedy.

Ellie’s family have set up a GoFundMe page to help young athletes, like Ellie, compete in elite winter sports. 

Ellie competing at the European Youth Olympics Winter Festival in 2017