Mental Health Awareness Month: Spotlight on Student Athletes
Trigger Warning // suicide, suicidal thoughts
A recent quote I saw said “We have to put the person before the student and the athlete, otherwise we are at risk of losing all three.” That was in response to the passing of Katie Meyer, a standout goalie for the women’s soccer team at Stanford who died by suicide earlier this year. Four other student-athletes have died by suicide in a matter of two months– Sarah Shulze, Lauren Bernett, Jayden Hill, and Robert Martin. Both Katie and Lauren had been on national championship winning teams in their respective sports. People tend to think of high-level athletes almost like heroes– they do things few others can do, and they learn how to get comfortable with and push through pain. “They get to do what they love and have so many privileges, they must be so happy! Why would they ever choose to end it all?”
Having been an athlete myself and now working with athletes for several years as a sports dietitian, I think it’s safe to say sport provides a sense of purpose, accomplishment, a commitment to something greater than yourself that few can understand, and belonging. Athletes pride themselves on discipline, grit, and their innate need to push their own limits, all of which have probably led them to athletic success. It did for me; in college, I was a scholarship athlete, straight A student, captain of the women’s cross country team, and volunteered regularly in the community. So how was it possible that my senior year I found myself struggling with depression, anxiety, and like many others are starting to talk about, thoughts of taking my own life?
At the time, I didn’t recognize what I was feeling as these things. I did know that I felt relief when I got to sleep, dread when I woke up, panicky whenever I was around people, “down in the dumps” almost all the time, though not exactly sure why, and when I thought I did know I blamed myself because I was supposed to be able to handle everything and if I couldn’t, I was doing something wrong. I felt so very, very, alone. I thought it was my fault for feeling this way, so I didn’t see the point in telling anyone. I was taught that was complaining or being ungrateful. “You have so many things going for you! You don’t have to pay for school! You get free gear and tickets to football games! You’re friends with so many cool people! Don’t you love running and competing? You get to fly places and take trips and professors happily reschedule exams for you! You get free tutoring! You should be grateful! If you don’t like it anymore, why don’t you just stop? What is wrong with you??” Except those were things I had been told by people on the outside looking in. Those were not my actual experiences. These were:
Waking up at 5 or 6am for morning practice – can’t be late or the whole team will have hell to pay – and hoping it didn’t go over so that I wasn’t late for my 8am class. Back-to-back lectures until afternoon practice at 3:30pm,dining hall at 6pm, then right to study hall, tutoring, volunteering, and getting everything ready for tomorrow. In bed by 12am on a good day. Repeat.
Having to schedule classes only in the morning or early afternoon so that they didn’t interfere with practice. Not being able to take classes I wanted or having a minor because those classes conflicted with practice times.
Constantly worrying about not running well or getting good enough grades and having my scholarship cut, essentially ending my chance at getting a degree. Constant pressure to eat, look, and exercise like a serious athlete (hello, eating disorders!).
Planning the whole semester out before it even started to anticipate missed classes and exams for competition or handing in projects early before we left for meets. Having less time to study for exams because they usually got rescheduled earlier, not later. Catching up on assignments or studying ahead on the bus, plane, in the bleachers, at the hotel, in the tent, at meals. Getting the brunt of frustration from both professors and coaches when they prioritized their own expectations and I was caught in the middle.
Choosing to take a nap for 30 minutes instead of meeting up with my friend I haven’t seen in several weeks because I stayed up until 2am to complete that reading.
Any time we drop the ball, or seem tired, or want a break just once because we feel like we’re about to crack, we’re met with “You cannot fail. If you can’t handle it, you’re not cut out for this. Why are you wasting our time? Get it together, or get out.” Except quitting is not an option in the athlete’s mind. They’ve been trained to do the exact opposite. Anything less than that is unimaginable, unforgivable. Dealing with the disappointment from coaches, teammates, family, friends, fans, and worst of all, themselves, is too overwhelming to even think about. If they need a way out but can’t even fathom the aftermath, leaving for good seems like the only option. I remember how that felt.
The rate at which collegiate athletes receive treatment is much lower than their non-athlete peers. While roughly 30% of college student-athletes report having mental health concerns, only 10% of them seek professional help. Student-athletes often resist treatment for the same reasons as non-athletes, but also for additional ones related to sport. Some resist due to concern that having a mental health diagnosis will result in loss of playing time, status on the team, or even their scholarship. Some may fear the reactions of family, coaches, and teammates. Others may worry that treatment will negatively affect their sport performance.
A 2015 survey of student-athletes conducted by NCAA found 30% reported feeling seriously overwhelmed during the past month. Nearly 25% felt mentally exhausted while a third struggled to find energy for other tasks because of the physical and psychological demands of their sport. Sadly, less than half of those who sought help reported satisfactory care from their team or university.
Student-athletes are taught that they are “students first, athletes second”. While I believe this is meant to encourage them to prioritize education, it can be extremely dehumanizing and invalidating. Everyone, athletes included, seems to forget that student-athletes are human; they are human first, and whatever else they want to be after that. They are allowed to make mistakes, and then learn from them. They are allowed to change their minds. They are allowed to rest. They are allowed to have feelings and emotions. They are allowed to prioritize their whole selves and personhood before others’ expectations. They are allowed to advocate for themselves and receive support. They are allowed to know and trust that they are so much more than a body, and there is so much more to life than sport. And they deserve to know that they are never, ever, alone.
The conversation needs to continue, and sport culture needs to change. The system is flawed, and it is failing those who are the reason sport exists in the first place.