The Importance of Sport in Improving Veteran Mental Health
On the frontline
Australia’s veteran community is very much on the frontline when it comes to trying to improve mental health outcomes.
The statistics are well-known: One in two veterans have experienced a mental health disorder in their lifetime. Veteran men under 30 are suiciding at two times the rate of other Australian men their age. There were 373 reported veteran suicides from 2001-2016.
In this difficult terrain, getting involved in regular sporting activity can be a game-changer for veteran mental health.
The benefits of sport on veteran mental health
You don’t need to be a first responder to appreciate the physical benefits of being active. Going for a run after work, kicking the ball at the park with the kids, getting along to your local parkrun – we all know that you feel better for it (even if many of us get active a little less often than we should).
But what is it about sporting activity that makes getting active so powerful for the veteran community specifically?
For starters, sport is something that links all branches of the military together. It’s a common thread. During service, staying fit and healthy is an essential part of training, everyday life and a defining pastime.
Veterans ‘get’ sport.
But there’s more to it than that, particularly when it comes to improving veteran mental health.
Sport has been found to be associated with improved wellbeing. It cuts across multiple fronts; increased self-esteem and positivity, improvements in emotional health, resilience, and finding meaning and purpose.
The social benefits of taking part in sport are particularly important, especially when the family is involved. This is particularly true for the approximately 6000 veterans transitioning out of the Australian Defence Force and reintegrating into civilian life every year (with the median length of service being 8.7 years and 18% discharging for medical reasons).
Transition is a crucial period of time for our veterans, with more than 1 in 5 recently transitioned veterans reporting suicidal ideation, plans or attempts. In this context, sporting activity can be a gateway to tackling social isolation, becoming part of a social network and joining a team again.
Sport isn’t a replacement for vitally important medical support, but it can play a crucial role in improving mental wellbeing and is a great way to spend quality time with family and friends.
Narelle Mason’s story is indicative of the role of sport in mental wellbeing, particularly veteran mental health.
“Sport isn’t my thing,” says Narelle. “I’m not great at sport, I never have been.”
Narelle was medically discharged from the Royal Australian Air Force in 2017.
After leaving the Air Force, Narelle suffered with anxiety and a lack of focus. “I didn’t know what I was or what I was supposed to do anymore,” says Narelle.
Things get tough when Narelle’s husband is away serving on duty. During these times, Narelle balances other parts of her life with looking after two children. It’s hard for her to stay active.
After watching the 2018 Invictus Games, Narelle was encouraged by friends to connect with The Road Home in South Australia. Through sport she was able to find the camaraderie and team spirit that she’d lost after leaving the air force.
She even went on to compete at the Warrior Games in Tampa Bay, Florida earlier this year.
Sport helped Narelle cope with her anxiety. The support and camaraderie that comes with being in a team has helped her feel more confident outside of her comfort zone.
“Is it still there?” asked Narelle about her anxiety. “Probably, but I feel I can manage it a bit better now.”
She is also able to play actively with her children again. “It wasn’t until I was a fun mum that I realised that I’d not been a fun mum for four years,” says Narelle. “I didn’t realise how much of life I was missing until I started down this path. It’s changed everything for me and my family.”
Crucially, Narelle’s family has been with her on her sporting journey every step of the way. Narelle and her husband now plan family outings every weekend where they go for walks or play ball, getting the kids to see how important health and fitness is.
You can find out more about Veteran Sport Australia on the Veteran Sport Australia website. VSA sends a monthly newsletter featuring positive stories and opportunities around the country. You can sign up to it here.
Veteran Sport Australia
Veteran Sport Australia (VSA) is a member of the RSL family and was established as the primary legacy organisation of the Invictus Games Sydney 2018. The Invictus Games were hugely successful in shining a positive spotlight on the effects of sporting activity for the Australian veteran community.
At VSA, our ambition is to improve the health and wellbeing of veterans and their families by supporting opportunities for them to access sport and recreation activities around Australia. We connect veterans from around Australia with the right opportunities for them.
Our team engages with local communities, working with veterans and their families on the ground to get them active. Nationally, we work with sport, recreation and veteran organisations to improve the support available to veterans. We also provide financial assistance to veterans in need and support national teams and events for veterans, including the Invictus Games (working closely with the Australian Defence Force).