In 2021, Simone Biles, an American artistic gymnast, decided to withdraw from the Olympics team finals, as well as the individual all-around competition, due to a mental health issue. While this initially seemed to cause confusion and disappointment, Biles was also applauded for her honesty and initiative to prioritize her well-being. This decision brought up an important conversation surrounding mental health, specifically as it relates to the field of athletics.

As an athlete, physical injuries, such as a sprained ankle or broken arm, are fairly common and almost expected, as is the nature of both collegiate and professional athletics. Recovery for these injuries are expected to take time and rarely questioned when it happens-but what happens when an athlete needs time to recover from something that isn’t so easily visible?

According to The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), approximately 30% of women and 25% of men who are student athletes report having anxiety, but only 10% receive treatment. For professional athletes, around 35% suffer from burnout, depression and/or anxiety. The stress, pressure, competitive environment, and overall stigma of mental health can often prevent athletes from speaking out or even acknowledging mental health struggles they may be experiencing.

Signs that somebody may need support regarding their mental health include:

  • Sleeping problems/extreme fatigue
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Decreased motivation
  • Becoming withdrawn/avoiding social situations
  • Increased irritability

If you know somebody who is an athlete and struggling with mental health or you, yourself, are struggling, it’s important to reach out and get support. There are many ways you can support yourself and others, such as:

1. Have open conversations about mental health. Instead of keeping the feelings inside, talk to someone that you trust, such as a close family member, friend, teammate, or therapist. A trained mental health professional would help you learn coping skills, as well as provide a safe space for dialogue. There are also professionals that focus specifically on helping athletes, which you can find in the following resources:

Local Resource: https://www.phillymag.com/be-well-philly/sports-psychologists-therapists-mental-health-athletes/

General Resource: https://www.goodtherapy.org/

2. Practice self-care. Exercise is already considered to be great for your mental health and both student and professional athletes probably get plenty of it already. While it can be beneficial towards your mental health, it’s also important to focus on other aspects of self-care, as well. This can include proper nutrition, getting plenty of (restful) sleep, and doing other activities you enjoy, such as reading, watching your favorite show/movie, or another hobby that makes you happy.

3. Don’t ignore it. As mentioned, it’s important to have an open and honest conversation about mental health. Now this doesn’t mean you have to disclose everything you are experiencing all at once, but ignoring it could be harmful. For those who know athletes, such as a close friend, sibling, or child, encourage conversation around mental health and assure it’s a safe space to do so.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, but the two aren’t always held on the same level, particularly when it comes to both student and professional athletes. The stress and pressure can impact those who partake in athletics and therefore, it’s crucial to not only talk about it, but to also act.

Staff Blogger: Mollie Clupper

Mollie Clupper works for MHA as a Communications and Support Specialist. Using her own experiences, she wants to help bring awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, drinking coffee, and spending time with her fur-niece.

References:

https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/en/HealthU/2021/10/21/4-reasons-athletes-mental-health-gets-overlooked#.Ypiv53bMJPY

https://www.betterup.com/blog/mental-health-in-athletes