A new study has found teenage athletes who participate in two hours of sports-based mental health literacy and training are better equipped to deal with their own and others’ mental health problems.

The training program was conducted in and around the Illawarra on 350 boys aged between 12 and 18 over a season-long period in soccer, rugby league and swimming.

Principal researcher, Dr Stewart Vella, from the University of Wollongong, said the program taught young men to recognise the warning signs of mental health problems and to have the knowledge and confidence to seek help early.

“The long-term goal is to prevent the onset of severe mental health problems,” Dr Vella said.

Comprised of face-to-face workshops and online training, Dr Vella said sport is an important vehicle to deliver mental health programs.

“It’s engaging, it’s sport, not school. What we are really trying to do is leverage that motivating and engaging nature of sport,” Dr Vella said.

Under 13s rugby league tag coach Natasha Stewart said a team environment helps to start conversations on mental health.

“One of the main things is that you belong to that team, you form a bond with your team, build up trust, and rely on them for support on and off the field,” Ms Stewart said.

According to Dr Vella, the participants were not comfortable discussing mental health in school classrooms.

“It’s in front of people that you don’t know, respect or trust,” Dr Vella said.

“Sometimes in those situations, kids feel more comfortable to come to someone like a coach or one of their teammates – someone who is objective, not in their family,” Ms Stewart said.

The program focused primarily on young men, as Dr Vella said their age group is at particular risk due to low levels of mental health literacy.

“[The] inability to recognise the warning signs but also their unwillingness to seek help as well,” Dr Vella said.

“Some of that is down to masculinity and masculine norms and some of that is just down to knowledge and not knowing.”

The training can be adapted to all sporting codes and also targets parents and sports coaches by teaching them how to spot signs of poor mental health.

“It’s important for coaches to pick up on those kids who are struggling and might just need someone to listen to them or someone who has the knowledge of where they can direct them to if they need further help,” Ms Stewart said.

“Just being that support network if that’s all that is required.”

If you or someone you know is in need of support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Line on 1300 659 467.