Before It’s Too Late: Student-Athlete Mental Health
She has a 4.0. She is a starter. She is a double major. She is editor of the paper. She is an Academic All-American. She is an NCAA Sportswoman of the Year nominee.
I am her. Those describe me. But, so do these;
I have anxiety. I am depressed. I feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest. I have panic attacks.
On paper, everything appeared fine. As a matter of fact, it appeared more than fine. I was excelling in everything I did. Sure, there were challenges, but I overcame. On paper, I looked extraordinary. But, when that paper flipped, there was a side of me I wanted no one to know. Soccer wasn’t fun anymore. School was too much. The transition to college was tearing me apart. I told no one I put myself into therapy. I was only a freshman. I was so embarrassed.
In the span of my first semester, I went from feeling on top of the world to wondering if I was good enough. Social situations and soccer made me anxious to the point of panic attacks. I doubted my every move. I felt like I couldn’t
breathe half the time. But, I smiled. I laughed. I faked it. On the outside, everything was fine. I couldn’t make sense of what was going on in my head, so how could I expect others too?
Too often, student athlete mental health is overlooked. Student athletes have support systems in their coaches, trainers, professors, teammates, and beyond. They are “living the dream.” No one sees the amount of pressure and the over-scheduled days an athlete is facing. Between the classes, practices, conditionings, then socializing, studying, sleeping and eating, there’s no time. Add on the fact you’re expected to represent your school at the highest level. The high expectations lead to a low tolerance for failure. Depression so easily gets masked in perfectionism. It gets hidden is outward happiness. You’re supposed to be “mentally tough.” You’re expected to suck it up and take it.
We only hear of student-athlete mental health before it’s too late. Nobody knew the secret struggles of Maddy Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania Division 1 runner who died of suicide. Morgan Rodgers, a D1 Lacrosse player at Duke, battled darkness on her own. Austin Weirich and Evan Hansen, both Division
1 football players, took their own lives once it got too hard to hide. Bryce Gowdy died by suicide. He was a Division 1 football commit. Washington State quarterback, Tyler Hilinski, also died by suicide. Now, Katie Meyer, Stanford’s talented goalkeeper. The list unfortunately goes on and affects all levels of
There’s this stigma of embarrassment and shame surrounding mental health. It seems your world is turned against you. You feel like a let down. A disappointment. A failure, even. You live a façade of perfection when inside your world is crumbling. You don’t want to be rejected or to be treated like your weak. You don’t want to lose your starting spot, the chance of starting or worse, your scholarship.
Researchers at Drexel and Kean Universities found that nearly 25% of students have reported severe enough mental health concerns that are clinically relevant. A 2015 NCAA survey showed over 30% of college athletes had felt uncontrollably overwhelmed in the past month prior to being surveyed. In 2013, the NCAA declared mental health as the number 1 health and safety concern facing athletes.
There are resources for a torn ACL or a concussion, but limited resources available for student-athletes related to anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. In 2019, the NCAA voted for the Power Five Conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern) to make mental health services
available to their athletes. While that’s a huge step in the right direction, it leaves out other division 1 institutions, not to mention divisions 2 and 3 as well as NAIA schools. Grassroots movements have been made on some campuses to discuss and normalize mental health, but again, those are only small steps at a few schools.
Let’s fight to end the stigma. Let’s normalize conversations around mental health in athletics. Let’s learn the warning signs. Let’s ensure resources are in place. Let’s catalyze a culture shift in athletics. Let’s do it before it’s too late.
SoccerGrlProbs wants to thank guest author, Gwen Schemm for sharing her words and personal experience with us all and reminding us to check in on each other, always. Remember, one of the strongest things you can do is ask for help.