Picture this: two athletes sit out on the bench, sidelines, etc. One is internally struggling and suffering from depression, while the other bears a leg brace and crutches, having just had an ACL surgery. Now let me ask you, which seems more detrimental to the athletes’ performances?
Blatant social stigma held by many would immediately suggest the athlete with the physical injury, but mental illnesses are equally — if not at times more — destructive to one’s performance on the court, field, etc. More often than realized, today’s student-athletes are constantly battling their greatest competitor within themselves rather than on the playing field.
In fact, Drexel University researchers found that, on average, one in every four collegiate student-athletes reported “clinically relevant” levels of depressive or anxious symptoms, and that number is rising.
So, why is this topic not discussed openly among the NCAA, universities, coaches, athletes, etc.? Yes, society is doing better, and the ever-present topic of mental health is gaining attention in general, but why is it still swept under the rug in athletic contexts?
The answer: that blatant social stigma mentioned earlier. Athletes are still expected to be these mentally superior beings — possessing mental toughness beyond that of their non-athlete counterparts. Showing depressive symptoms such as crying, and lack of motivation or interest is labeled as “weak” or “lazy” in the world of collegiate athletics. Student-athletes must be on their A game at all times, leaving no time to cope with internal struggles.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that athletes are hesitant to speak out or even seek assistance for their illnesses. Many athletes instead bottle up their demons until they become too much to handle alone, often leading to mental and/or physical burnout. The internal competition beats the athlete down to the point where they become demoralized, and eventually throw in the towel.
Over the years, the NCAA has improved its efforts in tackling the stigma. Every four years, the association releases what is called the GOALS survey, which analyzes data from willing participants from member institutions on the well-being of current collegiate student-athletes. The association’s webpage also contains information and resources for struggling athletes. However, there is still much room to improve.
For starters, so much can change in a four-year period. How relevant is research data from 2016 today? Depending on the topic, not very, and mental-health related topics are no exception. With environmental circumstances constantly changing and increasing athletic demands, data should be collected, analyzed and released to the public every two years, if not annually.
Additionally, not many student-athletes are made aware of the resources available to them. A simple poll within my own team revealed that a majority of athletes did not realize the NCAA even had a webpage dedicated to mental health in collegiate sports. At Illinois State University, however, we are constantly reminded of the resources we have available on campus — including a registered, on-staff sports psychologist.
This should be the norm: universities actively supporting their athletes and encouraging openness in communication. Within my track and field team here at ISU, the coaches have made it abundantly clear that they are here for us to listen and urge us to talk about our internal struggles. Our coaches prioritize our overall well-being, not just our physical fitness, because they recognize the toll mental illnesses can take on our performance. This should be the norm.
The “norm” should be doing away with the stigma altogether and recognizing that student-athletes are not machines; we are complex human beings with emotions and struggles, both internal and external. The “norm” should be understanding that athletes, like any other person, often fight battles that cannot be seen, and those battles can impact physical performances. Although these illnesses cannot be seen, that does not mean they should be left untreated.
This should be the norm.