How Formula 1 Tackles Mental Health Stigma in the Sport and Beyond

In the second piece of this series, ATRL’s Ayesha Ninan explores Formula 1’s evolving stance on mental health, from systemic changes within the sport to impactful partnerships like McLaren’s collaboration with Mind.

Ayesha Anna Ninan

May 1, 2024

In recent years, Formula 1 has undergone a notable transformation in the way it addresses mental health and wellbeing. This shift mirrors broader societal changes, where athletes from various disciplines are increasingly vocal about their struggles with mental health. 

 

The pressure of performing consistently in an elite sport has been brought to the forefront in other sports. The captain of the Stanford soccer team, Katie Meyer, died by suicide in 2022. Her teammate and best friend, Naomi Girma, set up a mental health retreat with Common Goal, an organisation where players, managers and clubs pledge 1% of their income to be put back into the game. Fox Sports committed to putting 1% of their coverage of the 2023 Women’s World Cup to discussing mental health and there has been more coverage and more supporting programmes since then. 

 

Athletes including Simone Biles, one of the most decorated American gymnasts, and Naomi Osaka, tennis champion, have also spoken openly about their struggles with mental health and taken steps to raise global awareness. 

Formula One launched the #WeRaceAsOne initiative in 2020 to tackle issues facing the sport (Photo via Formula1.com)

Against this backdrop, Formula 1 teams and drivers are participating in the transformation of the culture of the sport and embracing a more honest and vulnerable approach. Systemic shifts have been initiated over the last decade by the sport itself. Formula 1’s #WeRaceAsOne campaign introduced training programs to enable team personnel to give support to those who needed it. This expanded the scope of its focus beyond “diversity, sustainability and inclusivity.” 

 

Further awareness is raised by racing teams forming partnerships that benefit employees while expanding awareness outside of the sport as well. McLaren partnered with Mind, a mental health charity, between 2020 and 2022 to raise funds and build awareness. 

 

Mind is a UK-based charity that aims to make mental health an everyday priority by making support more widely available, building community awareness and training wellbeing advisors. McLaren’s drivers helped with fundraising by painting helmets for Mind’s #MoveforMind initiative. In another initiative, One Lap for Mind, participants could walk, cycle or run one lap at the Silverstone track to raise funds. 

When asked about the relationship between the organisations, Andrew Berrie, Head of Corporate Partnerships at Mind, says: “Having a partnership with a Formula 1 team can be a fantastic opportunity for a charity like Mind to raise funds and awareness locally, nationally, and internationally. He adds, “During this time, McLaren Racing raised a huge amount of money to support people experiencing a mental health problem. The partnership also raised significant awareness of mental health and Mind among McLaren Racing’s workforce, within the wider Formula 1 industry, and, of course, with fans across the world.” 

McLaren’s Lando Norris paints a helmet to raise money for Mind Charity (photo via @LandoNorris on X)

The COVID-19 pandemic also spurred a change in the level of openness team members exhibit when discussing how they handle challenging conditions. The lockdown took a toll as teams were confined to their hotel rooms away from home. Members of McLaren Racing described mood swings during quarantines and the sense of feeling trapped. They candidly shared their strategies for managing stress, with one of them pacing twenty kilometres a day in his room until the carpet had worn down.

 

The McLaren and Mind partnership extended into 2022 to continue support for those most affected by the pandemic. McLaren CEO Zak Brown has said, “It is important that we continue to spotlight the mental health emergency created by the pandemic, and support the services Mind offer and the positive impact they make on people’s lives.” The benefits of the partnership went both ways, Berrie notes, “As a team in a high-performance environment at the peak of motorsport, mental health and wellbeing is a key priority. Throughout our partnership with McLaren Racing, we also advised and supported their workplace wellbeing programme to help staff with their mental health.” The McLaren race team now also includes eight trained mental health first aiders who are available to provide support when needed.

 

Beyond Formula 1, since 2015, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has also invested in a service and app called Instahelp where users can schedule a call with a therapist through the app. It aims to make support for mental health more accessible for the general population.

 

Developing mental strength requires dedicating the necessary time and space to invest in one’s psychological well-being. In 2022, in a sign of progressing times, drivers spoke about their mental health challenges in an official Formula 1 video for World Mental Health Day. Now, Hamilton speaks very differently about mental health, ”it’s never a bad thing to ask for help if you need it, or to tell somebody how you feel. Showing your vulnerable side doesn’t make you weak, instead, I like to think of it as a chance to become stronger.” He also states, “I have struggled mentally and emotionally for a long time, to keep going is a constant effort but we have to keep fighting. We have so much to do and to achieve.” 

Mind’s Andrew Berrie says of McLaren, “In speaking out, the team helped to normalise these sorts of conversations and challenge the stigma that so often surrounds mental health. Research by Mind found that nearly a third of people say that hearing celebrities or those in the public eye talk about mental health helps to normalise the topic, and more than one in 10 have sought support for their mental health because of this.” By openly addressing mental health, teams and drivers play a crucial role in de-stigmatising the subject for themselves and for others. A continued culture of acceptance and understanding is something from which we can all benefit. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ayesha Anna Ninan is an editor and script development consultant based in Mumbai. She developed an interest in Formula 1 through Netflix’s Drive to Survive and has become an avid follower of the sport. In her spare time, she teaches film editing, runs a nonfiction book review blog and now writes about Formula 1. She holds a masters in film production from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Asia.

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Raising Mental Health Awareness Beyond Formula 1

Raising Mental Health Awareness Beyond Formula 1

To raise mental health awareness, Formula 1 teams are partnering with charities like Mind. Founded in 1946, Mind emphasizes community-based mental health support despite controversies. Their collaboration extends to engaging fans and hosting events, supported by advocates like Lewis Hamilton, and promoting destigmatization through open conversations and support.

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