Mental Health Concerns Among Student Athletes
With demanding schedules and increased pressure to perform, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that student athletes are at equal risk for experiencing common mood disorders like depression or anxiety as their non-athlete classmates. We spoke with Kate, an avid tennis player who knows firsthand what it was like to be an athlete with depression.
Tell us a little about yourself, what sports have you played, at what level, for how long, etc.
I played a few different sports growing up such as soccer, tennis and basketball. I played basketball for a few years during late elementary/early middle school years and then switched over to playing tennis year-round in seventh grade. I started tennis when I was about 7 or 8 years old playing for fun during summers. Once I made the decision to play tennis exclusively, I began taking lessons and attending group classes about 3 to 4 days a week. This helped prepare me to play high school tennis for four years, three of those years at the varsity level. After high school, I decided that I wanted to try to play tennis at the collegiate level. I successfully made the team as a freshman and continued on to play through the rest of my college career.
How does being an athlete impact your identity or how you define yourself? Does it?
I think being athlete is a significant part of my identity. In college, I was known as an athlete and my friends were my teammates and other athletes. We all understood the commitments we made to our sports and that meant that we sometimes had to miss out on social opportunities for competitions or practices. Even though I do not play tennis at that level any more, I still have the athlete mentality. I am still competitive, just in other areas of my life, and I still have that drive to be active and take care of myself. I am pretty sure I will always identify myself as an athlete.
What did depression feel like to you and did it impact your ability to play tennis? If so, how?
Depression snuck up on me my freshman year of college and I struggled to cope with it. I did not suffer from being unable to get up and function day in and out, but I struggled with emotional highs and lows. I struggled with sadness, anxiety, as well as feelings of loneliness. Dealing with depression and playing tennis were at times hard for me. Playing a sport can be filled with disappointments of varying degrees and I felt some of those disappointments more severely than others. Like many sports, tennis has a huge mental component and if you struggle with self-doubt or have a negative loop running through your head like I did at times, it is really difficult to perform at the level you want to compete at and the level at which you know you can compete.
Do you think there is a different kind of pressure for players in individual vs. team-based sports?
I think that both individual and team-based sports have similar pressures. Tennis is a unique sport if you are playing it in high school or college. In those settings, tennis is an individual yet team sport. You are competing for your individual match but you are also competing as a team. Individual sports are challenging because it is just you out there competing. Speaking from experience, it is really hard to quiet your thoughts, especially if things are not going the way you want. If you cannot stop negative thoughts, things can spiral out of control quickly. Team sports have their own set of challenges as well such as pressure to make the starting line-up and then once you accomplish that, pressure to play your best so that you do not let you team down.
What do you believe are the main barriers to seeking help/treatment for athletes?
A big part of athletics is being mentally tough; not buckling in tough situations and finding a way to pull out a win even if you are struggling. It’s hard to be mentally tough in a sport when you are struggling to stay calm mentally in daily life. It’s hard to admit that you are not okay and need help, especially when you are feeling pressures to perform. For me, I sought help in the form of therapy early on but I never wanted to share what I was experiencing with anyone. I didn’t want anyone’s opinion of me to change or to be treated differently because of it.
What prompted you to come forward about your depression? Was there something specific that pushed you to seek help?
I was encouraged by my family early on to seek counseling to help deal with my mental health issues. They wanted me to talk with someone about what was going on in my life and develop coping skills as difficult/challenging situations that could crop up. I struggled a lot with my mental health my freshman and sophomore years of college and counseling was what helped immensely. I still have my ups and downs but I am better at managing what is thrown at me and how that affects my mood.
What do you think coaches/schools can do to create an environment in which athletes would feel comfortable coming forward with their mental health concerns?
I think awareness and conversations about mental health would help athletes feel more comfortable with coming forward to talk about their mental health concerns. I believe it is important for coaches to be able to recognize when something isn’t quite right with their athlete or student and to understand more about mental health issues. There is still a significant amount of stigma associated with mental health disorders and I think the more that coaches/administrators know, the more they can help. Some athletes may be apprehensive about bringing mental health concerns to the attention of their coaches out of fear that it may affect their position on the team. I also believe that it is important to have conversations about mental health disorders. I could imagine that athletes or students suffering from mental health issues may not seek out treatment because they don’t know who they can turn to for help. If coaches had open conversations about mental health and made themselves open and available for their athletes/students, I think it would help a lot.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your experiences? Do you have a message for coaches, teammates, or other athletes that are struggling with mental illness?
I want all young people, athletes and students alike, to know that it is okay to ask for help when you think you may be suffering from mental health issues. Even if you do not know what you are experiencing, it is okay to ask for help and you should ask for help!
Coaches can play a critical role in creating an environment that enables their athletes to come forward with mental health concerns while feeling free of fear and judgment. Former Red Sox pitcher, John Trautwein and his wife, Suzie, founded the Will to Live Foundation after losing their 15-year-old son, Will, to suicide. The nonprofit promotes athletics, music, clubs, and other team activities as an excellent opportunity for positive release for teens. Will to Live encourages coaches to serve as trusted adults for their team members and to create an atmosphere in which youth feel comfortable sharing their personal ups and downs. Building these relationships helps teens learn to find love, support, and hope in their teammates and friends––all factors that can help reduce the risk of depression and suicide.