REGINA -- Since COVID-19 brought the athletic world to a halt, one psychologist says significantly more Canadian athletes are seeking mental health support.

“In national-level athletes, we’ve seen an increase of almost 70 per cent in requests since March,” Lisa Hoffart said.

Hoffart is a registered psychologist and mental performance consultant with the Sport Medicine and Science Council of Saskatchewan and the Canadian Sport Centre in Saskatchewan. She works with a range of athletes from the grassroots level to Olympic and Paralympic performers. 

Hoffart said on average, one in five athletes will seek mental health support. 

“They can experience extremely high pressures and expectations which can increase stress,” Hoffart explained. “There can be team dynamic issues, we’ve heard a lot obviously about safe sport issues.”

However, many athletes still struggle with speaking out or seeking help.

“It is still something where athletes often think that the need to be tough and they need to cover up those cracks,” Hoffart said. “They’re okay to maybe address a physical injury but we often forget that our brains and our minds are part of our body.”

Regina’s Ethan Ball is in his rookie season of football with the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

Two years ago, he started experiencing anxiety and depression. Ball said those eventually lead to suicidal thoughts. 

“My mind wasn’t where it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be on football and focusing on what I’m supposed to be doing in the moment on the field,” Ball said. “[I was] worrying about my image, what I was portraying to the coaches, what they were thinking of me.”

The 19-year-old first opened up to his family, then decided to share his story publicly in the hopes of helping others. 

“It’s harder than playing any football game,” Ball admitted. “As a football player and an athlete, you’re taught to be tough and not show emotion. I know we’re trying to end the stigma but it’s definitely still not an easy thing.”

Hoffart said if someone is suffering in silence, there are indicators that family and friends should be aware of. These include changes in mood and thought patterns. 

“Thoughts are often identified through how someone is acting and behaving, so watching for changes in those behaviours, changes in energy and sometimes changes in appearance,” Hoffart said. 

The psychologist added reaching out to a qualified specialist, such as a registered psychologist, counsellor or social worker is vital. 

Hoffart also stressed that being a successful athlete can co-exist with a mental illness. 

“You can have a mental health disorder, you can be diagnosed with a mental illness and still be very high functioning day-to-day in your sport,” said Hoffart. “As long as you’re getting the proper treatment.”