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The Prevalence of Mental Health in Student-Athletes

Athletes are known for having the most packed schedule: practice for four hours a day, a full college class course load, a club or two, their religion to participate in, a part time job and maybe a social life.

One of my favorite images is of a triangle with your sport in the center and each corner of the triangle represents a different portion of your life, for example: rowing, social life/sleep, school. And the caption asks you to pick two. We all know that as athletes, we let our social life and sleep slip through the cracks in order to be successful. Now add something like mental health on your plate and that’s another part time job in it of itself.

Mental health conditions are things like: Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Alcohol/Substance Abuse and many more. Having to deal with such stressors, especially as a collegiate student athlete is hard.

But there are many people before us that have tackled it well, like baseball player Zach Greinke, professional skier Picabo Street, golfer John Daly, hockey play Stephane Richer, swimmer Greg Louganis, tennis player Serena Williams, boxer Ronda Rousey and many more. Many of these individuals recall times when it was excruciatingly difficult.

The amount of time spent in therapy, being hospitalized, going to rehab, taking medications, dealing with side effects and waiting for a change was really tiresome. A current student athlete, Sarah Roe from the University of Wisconsin-Madison tells her story of her struggle with mental health.

“It was really hard at first. The summer before I came to school I was feeling good. I was excited and finally thinking that I was under control. When I got here [UW-Madison] I completely fell apart. I was cutting and suicidal again. My depression, anxiety, and eating disorder completely took over my life again.

So, I went back to seeing a therapist and was put on the right medication. Second semester freshman year until October 2016, I had hardly any progress. I said I wanted help but deep down I knew I didn't really want it. It was so comfortable for me in the state I was in. I had no interest in pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. My grades, rowing and all my relationships suffered. Going into October this past year I sat with myself for a good 3 hours just thinking about how my life was progressing. In realizing how harmful my life style was to not only me but everyone who is around me, I committed to myself to get better. The past 4 months have been the hardest months of my life. My grades suffered because all my energy was going into completely changing my thought process.

The result? Well I have never felt truly happy before, but based off of what I feel I am so happy. I can smile without it feeling forced. I can think, actually think about things other than how I am worthless. My grades are so much better, and I have completely shattered all the expectations I had for rowing. This morning I went 8 seconds faster than ever before on my 2k! Long story short, depression has completely consumed my life for as long as I can remember, but I am working to lessen its impact. Eventually I had to realize that all the help I had access to was not actually going to work unless I actually wanted it ot. No one could help me but myself.”

– Sarah Roe, Sophomore Rower at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

There is more to life than just having a normal BMI, temperature and blood pressure. There is the mental aspect of not just the game, but also in life. There is no shame in getting help, and if you struggle, you should reach out!

"Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country. It's a public health issue and now we're seeing it more and more in our student-athletes," said Timothy Neal, assistant athletic director for sports medicine at Syracuse University. "One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues, but what is unique about the student-athlete is they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue."

Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country.

What I find interesting is that there is extensive care for student-athletes who have torn ligaments, broken bones and concussions, but care for those suffering from mental health disorders is still in the making. An American study regarding student-athletes participating in the NCAA sanctioned intercollegiate athletic programs, found that of these student-athletes, between 10 and 15% (2% higher than their nonathletic counter parts) will experience psychological issues severe enough to warrant counselling (Watson & Kissinger, 2007). In females, eating disorders were found in much higher rates for athletes than non-athletes with 8% of student-athletes suffering from bulimia and 1.5% suffering from anorexia; these rates are all comparatively higher than their non-athlete counterparts (Gill, 2008). 

10-15% of athletes experience psychological issues severe enough to warrant counselling

So what makes athletes susceptible and what are the warning signs you can look for in our fellow friends and teammates? First, as mentioned before, student-athletes are under tremendous pressure. Pressure to adhere to academic deadlines combined with excessive sporting commitment, their age doesn’t help, genetics, their transition to college, physical issues like pain in their body and sleep problems, and dealing with injury.

Signs that your teammate may be at risk are changes in sleep patterns, not eating well or at all, mood swings, sleeping more than normal, unexplainable anger, unexplainable under-performance in sport, lack of interest in things once enjoyed, social isolation, rapid weight gain or loss, feelings of apathy or hopelessness, and decline in academic performance. When you or a friend go through this it may feel like there is no hope or no light at the end of the tunnel, but there is. Also, it is so important that you tell someone like a doctor, trainer, mentor, or coach. Telling someone can change and potentially save a life.

Lastly, if you or a friend want confidential advice there is a hotline available to you 24/7. 1-800-273, 8255 if you live in the United States and +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 if you live in the UK.

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