Sporting Minds UK founder believes mental health stigma still exists

By Nick Mashiter, PA
·3-min read

Sporting Minds UK founder Callum Lea fears mental health problems are still seen as secondary issues.

The 20-year-old, a former Worcestershire academy cricketer, wants to remove any lasting stigma.

The family of former Manchester City youth player Jeremy Wisten has called for greater action to help young players and parents.

Callum Lea wants to help young sportspeople (Sporting Minds UK/PA)
Callum Lea wants to help young sportspeople (Sporting Minds UK/PA)

Ex-City defender Wisten, who died at the age of 17 last week, played for the club’s elite youth squads after joining in 2016 until his departure in 2019.

Sporting Minds UK offers support for 16-30-year-olds and Lea wants to finally break down the barriers.

“You don’t play on with a hamstring injury but it doesn’t seem to work that way with mental health,” said Lea.

“We’re trying to work as hard as we can to normalise it, trying to make having a mental health issue as normal as having a hamstring strain or missing a few games through injury.

“The stigma is still there. If we can normalise the subject that’s when it’ll be easy for young athletes to open up about it.

“There’s always going to be a battle about not appearing weak. In reality it should be seen as a strength if you can open up, especially in a competitive environment.

“It’s heartbreaking, it was extremely sad news and unfortunately it’s news we’ve seen in the past with other young athletes.

“Having been in that scenario I know it can be tough and hopefully it’ll be a wake-up call to people, not just within academy sport.”

Lea struggled with his mental health during his time with Worcestershire and set up Sporting Minds UK last year.

Lea was on the books at Worcestershire (Sporting Minds UK/PA)
Lea was on the books at Worcestershire (Sporting Minds UK/PA)

The charity aims to raise awareness and offers free, confidential, one-to-one mental health support, in association with BUPA, from county and university level to elite.

Bournemouth defender Chris Mepham and Olympic cyclist Elinor Barker are ambassadors while the charity’s work has been endorsed by Dame Kelly Holmes.

It developed through Lea’s own experience while at New Road in 2018 and the Oxford Brookes student, who is studying philosophy and politics, wants to be able to offer more guidance to families and for care to be more visible.

He said: “When you’re trying to burst through from academy sport to professional sport the pressure is the toughest. You’ve got a taste of what it could be like as a professional athlete and you’re really close but the demands get turned up so much more.

“It’s a sink or swim stage and you feel you are judged so much more intensely on each performance. Time is running out for you to make an impression and I found that transition really tough.

“There was support on offer but you had to really be in a difficult situation to realise there was. I didn’t hear much about it until I went on the decline mentally. It felt like a last resort.

“I realised there wasn’t enough athletes getting the support they needed. I know governing bodies do very good work, but the benefit of having an independent charity is there’s complete anonymity.

“When I went through the support system my coaches knew about it and, at the time, I was uneasy about it as I feared selections issues.

“Over the past few years it’s been too tough to find it.”

Sporting Minds UK is a registered charity that provides and promotes mental health support in young sports people. For more information or to access one-to-one support, go to www.sportingmindsuk.org