It has been proven that being physically active has a lot of physical and mental health benefits. Exercising regularly cannot only help with weight loss, but also help with depression and anxiety. But what about college or elite athletes who train regularly? Does their training and performance cause them to feel burnt out or depressed? Many assume that mental health issues in athletes are rare, as they are often perceived to be healthy individuals. However, this can be far from the truth.
According to the Global Sports Matters (2018), mental health issues amongst athletes are similar to those of the general population, showing that physical fitness and focus on training do not diminish the prevalence of disorders such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and eating disorders. According to Athletes for Hope (2019), 33% of all college students have experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other sorts of mental illness. Among professional athletes, up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from burnout, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Unfortunately, many athletes do not seek help because of the mental health stigma or being seen as “weak.” This mental health stigma impacts the ability to seek counseling, not just with athletes but with most people overall. However, in the athletic community, speaking up about emotional health issues can make an athlete seem vulnerable or “weak.” In the competitive world of sports, vulnerability and weakness is the last thing an athlete wants to show. Stigma has been the most commonly reported factor preventing athletes with mental health issues seeking help.
Another reason why athletes do not seek help is that they are expected to be “mentally tough”. Being “mentally tough” means never showing weakness or admitting that you are not okay. It’s a term that has to be thrown around in every sports field, gyms, practices, and locker rooms. It’s supposed to represent determination and courage. Athletes have been taught their whole life to be tough and to push through. Push through against failure, feeling bad, or even feeling down. Being “mentally tough” wins championships and every coach and athlete wants the status, the praise, and the big trophy. But it is important to take into consideration that a person’s mental health is way more important than a championship ring. Even the greatest athletes of all time have mentioned they suffered from depression or anxiety at their highest peak of training and performance. The gold olympian Micheal Phelps tells his story when he suffered from suicidal thoughts and depression even at the peak of his remarkable swimming career. He calls depression and suicide among Olympic athletes an “epidemic”.
Mental health stigma is still an ongoing issue in the athletic community and coaches and organizations must be aware of how to deal with mental health issues. Athletes should be provided with support and help them overcome the stigma of admitting they might need counseling or therapy. Athletes from all levels should be encouraged to ask for help and feel no judgment. Asking for help should be normalized and there is no downside to speaking up. Soloman Thomas, San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle, once said “being vulnerable is showing unbelievable strength and leadership”. For athletes to lose the stigma of help, there has to be a culture shift in sports. In the athletic community, mental health should never be overlooked or ignored. Organizations need to understand that mental health is important and all athletes need to realize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s helping them realize it is just like an injury that needs treatment. No athlete should suffer in silence or feel ashamed when asking for help. It will make them feel lonely, abandoned, or unsure where to turn. So if an athlete is reading this, you are not alone. It is not weird to ask for help, if anything, it could be the most important thing you can do.
Athletes for Hope (2019). Mental Health and Athletes. http://www.athletesforhope.org/2019/05/mental-health-and-athletes/
Global Sport Matters (2020). NCAA Faces Uphill Battle Getting Mental Health Care to
Students Athletes. https://globalsportmatters.com/health/2019/08/21/ncaa-faces-uphill-battle-gettingmental-health-care-to-student-athletes/
About the Author:
Jennifer Rosales is an undergraduate intern from Fisher College in Boston, MA.
South Shore Child and Family Counseling is a private group psychotherapy practice consisting of a team of experienced clinicians. We are committed to the physical, mental, and social well-being of the residents of Braintree and the surrounding area. Our team of talented and compassionate clinicians will work with you to help you overcome life’s most challenging situations and celebrate your accomplishments.