Changing the Game for Athletes and Mental Health

There’s a reason why every parent signs up their kid for recreational soccer when they’re in kindergarten. Beyond the endorphins released during physical activity, sports can bolster self-confidence and form strong friendships and teamwork skills. A Canadian study has even shown that high school athletes grow up to be less stressed adults with better mental health. But as the stakes get higher, for example, for elite collegiate varsity athletes or even professionals, these effects seem to diminish, and mental health becomes a bigger question.

In 2014, Madison Holleran had the country whispering. Throughout her life, she excelled in both soccer and track, and chose to continue her running career at the University of Pennsylvania. The girl known amongst her peers as bubbly and always smiling began to quickly drown in the whirlpool of top-tier D1 athletics and intense academics alongside the social pressures of being a freshman girl in college. Within weeks, her mental health was on a steep decline. On January 17th, only a week into her second semester, she neatly made her usually messy bed, bought Godiva chocolates for her dad and two necklaces for her mom, snapped a photo of Christmas lights glowing on the tress in Philadelphia and posted it to Instagram. She then climbed to the ninth floor of a parking garage, took a running start and leaped over the high barrier. She was only 19 years old.

Image source: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/541b976fe4b09b50ed99a6d1/t/554e35...

Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health says 30% of all college students who suffer from mental health issues seek help, but only 10% of student-athletes with mental health conditions do. For athletes, all the stressors of college life are multiplied with the commitments of practices and games, and performance anxiety. Margot Putukian, director of athletic medicine and assistant director of medical services at Princeton University describes collegiate student athletes as living “under a microscope.” The NCAA reports that the percentage of student-athletes suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression has been on the rise, with 30% saying they have been “intractably overwhelmed” during the past month in 2015.

For professional athletes, this stress can be multiplied when their paycheck is on the line or millions of fans are tuning in. Kevin Love, player for the Cleveland Cavaliers, suffered from a panic attack right after halftime during a game against the Atlanta Hawks. Love opened up about the issue in his now-famous essay, Everyone is Going Through Something. He describes society’s expectations for men, especially male athletes, as tough, not allowing them to open up about their personal struggles. Brent Walker, an executive board member with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, agrees, explaining that elite and professional athletes don’t want to have a weakness, mental health included.

Image source: https://deadspin.com/kevin-love-shares-his-experience-with-panic-attacks...

Even Michael Phelps, 23-time Olympic gold-medalist, has divulged his lifelong battle with depression and thoughts of suicide. He since has partnered with Talkspace, an organization that connects those suffering to therapists quickly and easily through computers and smartphones, and believes that breaking the stigma of mental health through open discussion is key.

Thankfully, universities all over the country are listening. In 2016, the NCAA approved a $200 million distribution among Division I schools to improved mental health resources and support for athletes. Wellesley College recently became the first Division III school to implement official health care programming, and many others are following suit in the hopes of changing the game.

Sources:

https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/sports-and-mental-health/

https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/kevin-love-everyone-is-going-through-something

https://collegead.com/ncaa-mental-health/

http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12833146/instagram-account-university-pennsylvania-runner-showed-only-part-story

https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2017/07/21/few-student-athletes-with-mental-illness-seek-help/37433787/

https://www.outsideonline.com/2306711/american-athletes-need-better-mental-healthcare

https://www.boston.com/sports/olympics/2018/05/22/michael-phelps-depression-mental-health