Athletes, Are You Ignoring Your Mental Health?
With the Olympics right around the corner, it seemed like a good time to focus a bit on athlete mental health. The average person sees an athlete as just a little short of a superhuman or demigod. Athletes are extremely skilled and highly trained sports(wo)men that are terrific at their respective sports. Many athletes have millions of fans all over the world who would give anything to have one encounter with them.
This respect and admiration accorded to athletes, the wealth and luxury lifestyle they enjoy, the popularity and fame, is why many people wonder how well-trained superstar athletes can suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. People forget that athletes are human, with the same feelings and emotions that we all experience.
“You are only as good as your last performance”
In recent times, research has started to point to and address the issue of mental health in sports. We find professional athletes with mental illness (or concussion) can be driven to quitting their profession, or even more drastic, dying by suicide.
With so many fans looking up to them as heroes, untouchable and unbeatable, many athletes feel ashamed to show their vulnerabilities and human emotions. They feel it would present them as weak and retract their god-like status. The media spotlight does nothing to help matters as it can sway public opinion when it portrays the athlete as unstable or unfit for performance.
Athletes are constantly under a ton of intense stress, both mentally and physically. The competitive drive compels them to stay on their toes and follow through with training and routines so that they can give their best at every game, because, really, an athlete is viewed as only as good as their last game.
Athletes and mental health issues
In many cases, physical stress is the least of athletes’ worries; living up to their fans’ or family expectations is their topmost priority. This never-ending pressure leads to a lot of mental stress and other underlying factors that could cause mental health issues.
For one, some student athletes’ mental health issues may arise from suppressing thoughts about family or personal crises. This same athlete is expected to keep up their grades and put up a stellar performance at their sport. Injury-prone football, basketball, baseball etc. players are also struggling with mental health concerns. The constant pressure from being benched due to an injury and having their fans lose confidence in them may lead to extreme anxiety. (There is mounds of literature on the topic of injury and its consequences in athletes.)
Recently, one of the most popular tennis superstars, Naomi Osaka, openly and courageously spoke about battling “long bouts of depression” since she won her first major tournament, the U.S. Open in 2018. Naomi is just one of the many athletes with mental health challenges. I applaud Naomi’s courage to put her mental health first and to speak out. Hopefully with more people discussing mental illness (and mental wellness), it will continue to raise awareness, and eventually lead to destigmatization.
Adequate mental healthcare for athletes
As an athlete, access to adequate mental healthcare through therapy is paramount. Athletes need therapy to help navigate through anxiety, depression, performance anxiety, or emotional stress. If you are a student athlete for example, know that your school counseling center can help. Or, if you feel you need more than the 4-6 sessions a counseling center provides, seek out a therapist in your community. Please see my website for more information. You no longer have to neglect your mental health.