Athletes and mental health; at –risk and overlooked?
Athlete’s Mental Health In the Headlines
At least two headlines this week caught my eye and made me wonder about the mental health of athletes – they are at risk, yet are they overlooked?
Early in the week, headlines revealed that Washington State’s quarterback, 21-year-old Tyler Hilinski was discovered in his apartment after he didn’t show up for practice Tuesday. A rifle ”was recovered next to Hilinski and a suicide note was found,” according to the Pullman Police Department.
Later in the week, headlines promoted that Michael Phelps revealed “I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.” Olympic champion swimmer, Phelps, shared the story of his personal encounter with depression at a mental health conference in Chicago this week.
“You do contemplate suicide,” the winner of 28 Olympic medals told a hushed audience at the fourth annual conference of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group.
Phelps’ 20-minute discussion highlighted his battle against anxiety, depression. and suicidal thoughts — and some questions about his athletic prowess.
Athletes are Not Immune
Sometimes there’s a bias of thinking isolation and not reaching goals leads to depression and suicide. However, what about those IN the public eye? What about those who are surpassing goals and training for new ones daily?
Stress is relative. There is no one formula for depression and suicide; it’s a combination of factors such as developmental life stage, environmental stressors, interpersonal protective factors, resources, and heredity.
Athletes are not immune. In fact, athletic competition can also be a factor contributing to severe psychological and physical stress that leads to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Just because a person beams in the spotlight and sports physical prowess, don’t assume contentment. There could be a destructive “inner coach” – harsh, judgmental thinking – that leads to anxiety and depression. Additionally, trauma undergone in head injuries can actually alter the brain, leaving many of those injured to experience symptoms of PTSD. There might also be grief when you’ve played a beloved sport for most of your formative years, and your time of competing comes to an end.
Moreover, high achieving, competitive people who base their self-worth on performance, excellence, and winning seem to be at higher risk of developing eating disorders than those who are not athletes.
In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. Though most athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk—especially those competing in sports that tend to place an emphasis on the athlete’s diet, appearance, size, and weight requirements, such as wrestling, bodybuilding, crew, and running.
Risk Factors for Athletes:
• Sports that emphasize appearance, weight requirements or muscularity. For example: gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding or wrestling.
• Sports that focus on the individual rather than the entire team. For example: gymnastics, running, figure skating, dance or diving, versus teams sports such as basketball or soccer.
• Endurance sports such as track and field/running, swimming.
• Overvalued belief that lower body weight will improve performance.
• Training for a sport since childhood or being an elite athlete.
• Low self-esteem; family dysfunction (including parents who live through the success of their child in sport); families with eating disorders; chronic dieting; history of physical or sexual abuse; peer, family and cultural pressures to be thin, and other traumatic life experiences.
• Coaches who focus primarily on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a whole person.
Looking at Protective Factors
Let’s not overlook athletes. Anybody can suffer. It shouldn’t be in silence. Being strong doesn’t mean handling things on your own. Mental health needs assistance from a mental health professional in the same way as dental health needs assistance from a dentist.
Here are some places to turn:
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
• Crisis Text Line: 741 741 https://www.crisistextline.org/
Parents, friends… ask questions! If you are concerned about behavioral or personality changes you’ve witnessed in a loved one, tell them changes in attitude and self-care that you’ve noticed and ask them if they are feeling hopeless. Asking a person if they are thinking about ending their life doesn’t “plant” the idea or encourage them further. It opens the door to talk and seek help. It might even save a life!
Coaches, especially coaches…have necessary conversations! You play an important role because of the frequent contact and observation you have with your athlete. Regard these athletes as people and not just players driving your team record or coaching status. Be in the business of fostering thriving.
Ways Coaches can Foster Protective Factors for Athletes:
• Positive, person-oriented coaching style rather than negative, performance-oriented coaching style.
• Social influence and support from teammates with healthy attitudes towards size and shape.
• Coaches who emphasize factors that contribute to personal success such as motivation and enthusiasm rather than body weight or shape.
• Coaches and parents who educate, talk about and support the changing female body
Know there is help available.
Every school has a “student services” staff members who are available for student support and teacher consultation. They are a great resource for community supports as well.
To find support in the community, seek referrals from school student service staff, family physician, clergy, or friends. When people have been satisfied with a mental health professional, often they are happy to share!
There are also programs such as Eat Breathe Thrive that support the prevention of eating disorders and other mental health issues. This 6 Week session for athletes fosters connection among the group, as well as teaches and practices body confidence, self-care and emotional regulation.