Some of the most successful athletes are taking the lead on promoting awareness of mental health and encouraging others to talk about this topic. Athletes at many levels, from pro to Olympic, from college to high school, are getting involved with a general movement to help bring mental health out of the confines of dark places and into the spotlight.
For many years mental health was seen as a weakness or a character flaw. Athletes, in particular, are often taught that being strong means being quiet and getting the job done. The stigma attached to mental health issues has kept many struggling in silence. The fantastic leadership of athletes, and others, is helping to break this silence and the stigma.
Pro and College Athletes Speaking About Mental Health
Despite all my achievements, I routinely felt trapped, inferior and alone. This overwhelmed me internally and often left me mentally, physically, and emotionally broken. -Rory Mcilroy, pro golfer
Mcilroy’s words are a good summary of some of the difficulties athletes might have but few in the public would guess. The myth is that athletes, even pro and Olympic athletes, have somehow been exempt from anxiety or other mental health symptoms. But in the end, all athletes are human, and like other humans, experience the challenges of everyday life, including emotions of self-doubt.
Olympian Michael Phelps has been vocal about his own struggles with depression and expressed this sentiment of being human first and foremost:
We’re not gods. I’m human just like everybody else.
Michael Phelps, Olympic swimmer
Mental Health: College and High School Athletes
Similar to the pros and Olympians, college athletes have also expressed their desire to see mental health issues and services be addressed. In fact, a NCAA survey of college athlete across all Divisions revealed that student-athletes reported mental health as their number one safety concern. This means mental health is a primary area they want to be addressed as part of being a student-athlete. As a result, NCAA is pushing mental health awareness as key in the overall development of a student-athlete. Universities are being encouraged to engage in NCAA mental health best practices which include:
- Colleges and universities should have trained, licensed mental health professionals available for student-athletes
- There should be a means to identify athletes who are struggling and a method for referring them for care.
- The environment should be health promoting and encourage wellness
- Similar to physical exams prior to competition, athletes should have mental health screens as part being cleared to train and play.
Example: College and Mental Health Programming
Many schools are creating programs to address wellness and mental health. A good example is Nevada women’s basketball program. Their coach, Amanda Levens, included weekly wellness sessions on topics for her team during summer training and examples of topical areas included distress management and emotional regulation. Many student athletes don’t receive this type of education but it is encouraging to see more coaches embracing mental health awareness as part of their development of their athletes.
High school athletes are also affected by mental health challenges. Did you know that suicide, per the CDC, is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-old Americans? This is sad and we all need to get involved to build prevention.
But, pause for a moment, and consider what sports can bring to the table to help youth and college-aged athletes. A study by Sabo, Miller, Melnik, Farrell, and Barnes (published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport) indicated that engaging in high school athletics was associated with reduced chances of considering suicide among both females and males. There is also ample evidence to show that exercise, in general, has significant mental health benefits. Thus, there are certain unique challenges athletes can face with pressure to succeed but it is good to remember that athletics can also be a buffer for mental health challenges.
Themes of Athletics and Mental Health
- Athletes of all levels experience mental health challenges. The reason for this is that athletes are human, like all others, and have daily challenges, like others.
- Athletes, as a whole, are taking a leadership role in speaking out about the topic of mental health and helping end the stigma and bring the issues of mental health into the public. Their leadership is vital as many have assumed because they are athletes, they are immune to these issues. Seeing strong athletes coming forward is so instrumental for the broader issues of mental health that affects everyone. To all the athletes taking on these leadership roles, thank you!
For anyone struggling, there is help. Please reach out. One resource for you is the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential.
September is National Suicide Awareness Month and more articles about mental health will be coming. It is important to address mental health and suicide warning signs. It is also important to consider the unique needs and challenges athletes might encounter. We all need to get involved.