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“The athlete population is just a subset of the general population and they are susceptible to mental health issues just like anyone else,” said Robert Gordon, senior lecturer in the psychology department at Wright State.
College can put a strain on anyone’s mental health, and athletes are no exception.
According to Gordon, anxiety is a response to stress, and those who struggle to manage their anxiety may be at a higher risk for depression.
‘I don’t want to disappoint my teammates or my coaches’
On top of the stressors that accompany college such as finishing schoolwork on time, maintaining a certain GPA and managing a social life, athletes may also have to worry about the pressure to play well, multitasking and maintaining scholarships.
With these added pressures, athletes may be more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
“I don’t want to disappoint my teammates or my coaches and I think that’s a lot of pressure I feel daily,” said Bill Wampler, senior on Wright State’s Men’s Basketball team. “I feel like it’s hard as an athlete to not be hard on yourself because we’re trying to be the best we possibly can be.”
Many athletes are less likely to speak up about their struggles.
Although athletes are just as likely as anyone to suffer from mental health issues, surveys have shown they are less likely to seek help.
According to an article by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the culture of athletics trains people to “push through the pain” and be “mentally tough.”
Part of the difficulty of having depression as an athlete is getting past the stigma society pins on them.
“I’ve heard so many stereotypes about mental illness and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” said Destiny Johnson, junior on Wright State’s Women’s Soccer team.
Many bystanders find it hard to believe that athletes could be struggling with something as tough as depression or anxiety because they work so hard to conceal all of their weaknesses.
“We’re in the public eye a lot and we don’t want to seem weaker than anyone else,” said Wampler. “We want to appear strong because we think we’re role models to a lot of people, but in fact, the best role models are those who show other people that some things are really important to them.”
Many athletes don’t talk about their depression and anxiety because they are afraid other people will view them differently or look at them as weak, but the ability to stand up and talk about their mental health shows how strong and courageous these athletes really are.
Depression affects performance
Often enough, athletes don’t even realize what they are going through until they are in the middle of their peak performance in their athletic careers.
“Around sophomore and junior year of high school is when I started really noticing it because I started to get good at basketball and there was a lot of attention on me; I just never really got any gratification from anything,” said Wampler.
If these mental illnesses are left unattended, they can start to affect athletes’ performance in practices and games.
“It seemed like there was nothing I could do,” said Wampler. “I was in a downward spiral that I felt I just couldn’t get out of. It just made me not want to play.”
According to Johnson, on her worst days, her depression could be so draining that she would become mentally exhausted and it would affect her focus.
Sports add pressure but they also provide an escape
“Most of the time, as soon as I step on the field, it’s like all my problems and stress are on hold,” said Johnson.
Whether it’s playing in an important game or putting all of one’s energy into an intense workout, sports provide a way for these athletes to put their depression out of mind for just a little bit, in order to get out on the field or the court and play just like anyone else.
When it comes down to it, sports are worth the struggle for these athletes. When they are doing what they love, nothing else matters.
Opening up about depression and anxiety
Although talking about something like depression can be difficult to bring up to classmates and teammates, it was a huge step in the healing process for Wampler.
“I just wanted to be able to help people if they needed anything and open more doors for other people to have opportunities to talk about it,” said Wampler.
Simply talking about what they are going through or feeling could be the difference between a good day and a bad day. Whether it is a teammate, a roommate, a coach or a counselor, sharing about the struggles of depression and anxiety help to ease the load and make it a little easier to carry.
“I can open up to [my teammates] whenever I am down and they lift me up,” said Johnson. “I feel so safe with them.”
What is Wright State doing to help?
Both Counseling and Wellness services and the Athletics Administration at Wright State have programs and protocols in place to help athletes, as well as any other students, who suffer from any kind of mental illness.
“In addition to providing a direct liaison to the counseling center, student athletes are routinely informed of how to access mental health services on campus,” said Allison Newlin, the Counseling and Wellness Services liaison for Wright State University Athletics.
Wright State continually works hard to make sure students have people to open up to and talk to. Both Wampler and Johnson feel as if Allison Newlin has done a great job of giving support to the student athletes.
“Allison, who is the therapist for student athletes, has helped me a lot as well,” said Johnson. “I don’t like seeing therapists but she is different and really makes me feel comfortable.”
College athletics has come a long way in the world of mental health but there is still work to be done.
Not everything is what meets the eye. Anyone could be struggling with a mental illness, no matter what it looks like from the outside.
“You don’t know how many people are shocked when they find out I have depression because I am always smiling,’” said Johnson. “Many of us hide our feelings with a smile.”
Mental health awareness, especially in athletes, is becoming a huge topic, and that’s a milestone. Just being aware is the first step to making a difference.
“If you are suffering with mental health, don’t be scared to reach out,” said Johnson. “You aren’t weak! One of the hardest things to do is fight a constant battle with your own mind. When you feel like giving up, always remember it can’t rain forever and better days are coming.”