Athletes Get Real About Mental Health

What’s Behind the Recent Slew of Confessional Essays?

Aren’t Athletes More Mentally Fit Than the Rest of Us?

Ask any therapist and they’ll tell you public success and the need for mental health help aren’t mutually exclusive. But sports, where mental toughness can make the difference between a win and a loss, has always seemed like a special exception. Don’t these athletes possess a kind of mental acuity lay people don’t?

Caroline Silby is a clinical and sports psychologist and former member of the US National Figure Skating Team. She’s counseled a long list of Olympians and world and national champions, and is quick to point out that studies of collegiate athletes have shown that one in four will experience depression: a rate comparable to that of the general population.

“It can be difficult to imagine that a person who can produce so much success on the athletic field would experience anything other than pleasure, pride, and an unending supply of self-confidence. But mental health issues don’t discriminate,” Silby says.

Though she’s supportive of the recent trend of athletes telling their mental health stories, Silby says, “depression and mental health concerns are still a bit of a ‘dirty secret’ in sport. Elite athletes can have difficulty accepting emotional struggles and seeking assistance. However, the hopeful part is that once they do seek assistance, they often apply their sports work ethic to their emotional recovery, making progress more likely.”

Silby has noticed that her younger athletes are quite tuned into mental health issues, something she attributes to their facility with social media. But she also notes that the constantly public nature of social media can complicate mental health issues for them.

“The millennials are experiencing high rates of depression and anxiety, with some studies indicating this is due to high levels of perfectionism—a quality that most high achieving athletes possess,” she says.

That perfectionism is mercilessly tested as social media captures every slip-up on the way to perfecting their sport and applying to colleges. “It’s challenging for teens to maintain a growth mindset when each mistake, misstep and accomplishment is posted and judged.”

Silby believes that those in positions of power in athletics need to be getting and sharing the same supportive messages about mental health with their athletes. “Communication around this topic needs to be clear, consistent and coherent amongst all constituents it impacts: parents, athletes, coaches, managers, sports medicine teams, officials, athletic directors, leagues, and the National Governing Bodies of Olympic sports.”

Can Athletes Heal and Play at the Same Time?

When athletes are ready to take advantage of this greater mental health awareness and help, how do sports and clinical psychologists treat them, especially when they’re at the height of their powers? Aren’t these clients expected to recover quickly from injuries? How could they resolve deep depressions or significant anxiety or trauma on a season’s timeline?

“Athletes have real concerns about taking time off to deal with anything other than a physical injury, and as a result, mental health issues may end up being dealt with in the short-term, from game to game or event to event, as opposed to the long-term care that may be warranted,” says Silby.

Greene says he’ll often work with his athletes through the season but has been pleased to see that “those whose mental health concerns are so severe that they have to take time off and come back home and work on themselves are generally welcomed back. Coaches are okay with that. Players who play with them are almost always okay with that. Look at Kevin Love (an NBA star who recently went public with a panic disorder), he’s still in the playoffs as we speak.”

Greene also says that fan responses to these athletes’ confessions have been very supportive. “Everyone in our general population has someone they know who’s struggling with mental health in one way or another. Of course, letting down fans is an athlete’s biggest fear, but it’s been remarkable how that hasn’t been realized.”

Despite this warm embrace, are there still times when a struggling athlete should just walk away from the high expectations and stress of elite sports?

“There are times when they should just stop,” Greene says. “In counseling I sometimes ask these athletes, ‘Is it worth it? Is it time right now to take care of your sport or is it time to take care of you? To start discovering other parts of yourself or your life?’”

Along with allowing athletes to walk when they want to, Silby thinks an essential part of keeping athletes healthy is getting them preventive mental health care early on. She wants to reposition the definition of athletic success from a “win-at-all-costs” mentality to “the development of healthy and empowered people who also happen to have athletic outcomes that match their capabilities.”

Getting there, she says, includes elements of prevention, better mental health policies in the sports world, tracks for treatment upon diagnosis that are set and understood by all involved, and support for the inevitable post-sport transitions into civilian life.

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