I am a college athlete who struggles with mental health. My experience is less extreme than many, but it is just a small example of what is a big issue for many student-athletes. As a person who suffers from anxiety, performance anxiety is a big part of my struggle. Yes, everyone gets butterflies in their stomachs before games, but for me my butterflies used to end up in the garbage can. Even before some practices I would find myself throwing up from extreme nerves. Along with many other symptoms, my mom knew I needed help. I started doing therapy and my mental health strengthened from strategies I learned there. This all happened in high school, before I got to college. My mom was around and knew me better than everyone and could recognize my struggles. This makes me worry and wonder about all of the student athletes that haven’t addressed their struggles. From what I have seen so far mental health is not a priority or even really existent in our well being as athletes.
What is the Problem
As the NCAA describes the negative mental health in athletes, they believe that it is caused “the pressure associated with student-athletes’ daily routine can create intense emotional responses. The time, energy and effort put into developing skills in a given sport can result in imbalances in other areas of life.” Along with that, another study did mental health research with student-athletes, they found that injured student-athletes suffer from mental health disorders more often than compared to those student-athletes who are not injured (Puri, Sood 611). Injuries though are a part of being an athlete, but as we can see it may take a toll on ones mental health on top of the physical aspect of the injury as well. All that being said, the way student-athletes’ lives are lived isn’t going to change. There will still be early morning practices, long travel days, hours of homework, the pressure to perform and do well in school and even injures to face. The thing that needs to change is the resources that athletes can use to become more self-aware when their lives start to get too hectic and their mental health starts to deteriorate.
In the college sports world, anxiety isn’t the only mental illness athletes deal with. The NCAA has found that there are many other psychiatric disorders that athletes face. Mood disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, and substance use disorders, are just a few on the list of disorders that athletes end up struggling with. In the book “Mind Body and Sport: Understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness,” they describe these disorders along with college athletes’ personal accounts with them. In the book there is a story of University of Michigan football player Will Heininger and his battle with depression. He tried to fight the feeling and just keep moving along, but it didn’t work and made him feel worse. He ended up going to get help, but that was not an easy step for him to take as he had doubts and fears.
The Stigma Involved
One of the biggest problems I see with the athletics system is that there is a huge stigma against seeking help for mental health concerns. It is not solely from the athlete’s conceptions though, it is also an institutional problem that is causing their views on seeking help. Olivia Lubarsky speaks of her own experience and states that, “the nature of the NCAA conditions student-athletes to withhold displays of weakness while facing stressors that accompany performing at a high level academically, athletically, and socially.” Student athletes are held to a standard to everyday represent their school and sport, so we just put a smile on our faces even when times are tough. Also, Lubarsky explains that even if a mental illness may be present in an athlete, “it is often overlooked, dismissed, and hidden.” The NCAA’s “Mind Body and Sport” book too has revealed that there is a lot of stigma related towards mental health though Will Heininger. Heininger’s story alone shows what many student-athletes think about when contemplating seeking help. He thought that if he used the same mindset he used in sports and school, a “single-minded determination,” that he could attack his depression himself. He found that this didn’t work. Even when he knew he needed help he said that he was worried about his coaches and teammates seeing him as weak, and even his reputation to outside fans. He states that “there’s some amount of celebrity, where students don’t understand that athletes are like them. Some people don’t think of athletes as human; they just see them for what they do and their success on the field.” The stigma against mental illnesses is a real thing that student-athletes face and it is contributing to the overall problem.
Fixing the Problem
Things need to be changed, period. As one study explained it, “positive mental health of student leads to positive outcomes” (Puri, Sood 613). This means higher energy in practice/games, more focus in school, and many other positives. As a student-athlete myself I can attest to that. When I am at my best mentally, I am at my best academically and athletically. The three go hand in hand in my eyes, but to be at ones best academically and athletically, the mental health needs to be positive. Also, the same study found that “during stressful times, student athletes with positive mental health cope up with unfavorable circumstances” (Puri, Sood 613). Every student athlete will go through hard times, so why aren’t institutions focusing on positive mental health development to assist them through hard times?
Since we have athletic trainers for our injuries, we should bring in psychologist for our mental health. Or since we do strength training for our bodies, why can’t we strengthen our mind. In the article written by Olivia Lubarsky, she states that “budget restrictions pose a barrier.” She means that many schools don’t have enough money in their budget to hire a mental health professional for the athletics department. My school found a slight solution to this by bringing in the on-campus counselor from health and wellness during preseason. Although we only met as a team with her once and didn’t work to continually work on our mental health. I think it would be way more beneficial to have had a meeting with her as a team once or twice a month as well as individual times scheduled to meet with her to address and voice what is going on in our lives. To all of the student-athletes out there who are struggling, I want you to know that getting help doesn’t make you weak. You are bettering your overall health which will allow you to excel in your school and your sport.
Overall, I think the biggest improvement athletics can make at colleges is treating our mind equally towards the rest of our bodies. Mental and physical health are equally important. Having a student athlete that is suffering from a mental illness will affect their school as well as their play. Avoiding mental health disorders may be an ambitious goal, but I think establishing specific mental health training times for student athletes can be a step in the right direction towards positive mental health.
Puri, Divya, and Sarita Sood. “Significance of Positive Mental Health in Student Athletes.” Indian Journal of Health & Wellbeing, vol. 9, no. 4, Apr. 2018, pp. 609–615. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=135040396&site=ehost-live&scope=site