We’ve seen some encouraging stories in the last couple of years about professional athletes opening up about their mental health struggles, and being celebrated for having the courage to do so. Whenever a famous athlete discloses publicly that they are experiencing depression, anxiety, a substance use disorder, or other mental health challenge, it helps to de-stigmatize the issue and removes barriers to others who need help.
A Culture of Denial
Traditionally, the culture of athletics has been to ‘overcome pain’ and ‘win at all costs.’ Athletes, through the years, were encouraged to ignore symptoms of distress, and doing so was applauded and considered displaying “internal fortitude.” This approach is not even healthy for professional athletes, and is certainly not appropriate for amateur athletes of all ages.
Unfortunately, in the hyper-competitive world of youth sports, coaches and parents still encourage athletes to perform in ways that puts their mental and physical well-being as a lower priority than winning. Mental health problems can stigmatize a player and his or her team. Therefore athletes are often not forthcoming about the mental health issues they are facing.
Dealing with Depression
Many high school and college athletes suffer from depression at a clinically significant level. All mental health professionals agree that acknowledging depressive symptoms is the first step toward recovery. But, according to research, athletes with depression do not seek counseling as often as non-athletes.
Sports participants are always competing within their own ranks for playing time and their coaches’ favor, let alone to beat the opposing team. Taking time off to seek help may feel controversial or damaging to their career. So, many athletes conceal their mental health symptoms.
Some Examples of Athletes Overcoming Mental Health Struggles
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and The Playes’ Tribune featured 26 amazing essays where athletes shared mental health issues with the public. Publishing this information made it possible for athletes to reflect on the challenges they faced and share how they had managed their sadness, anger and stress.
For example, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, expressed the desire to end his life after winning four gold medals and two silver medals following the Olympics in 2022. The Olympian had been struggling with depression and ADHD. By getting professional help, he worked through the childhood trauma that was the root of his mental health problems, and now stands as a successfully recovering athlete.
When you read these kinds of accounts, you realize that ‘mental toughness’ shouldn’t refer to pretending to be indestructible, but rather having boundaries and taking care of yourself – both mentally and physically.
Symptoms that Indicate a High Level of Mental Stress
With so much going on in our young athletes’ lives, it may be tough to strike a good balance between competing at their highest level and caring for themselves. An athlete can find it difficult to focus when he or she feels overwhelmed or overburdened with worry and anxiety.
Signs that signal the need for mental health counseling include:
- Low energy levels
- Losing interest in other hobbies and activities
- Eating too much or not eating enough
- Abusing substances (alcohol, drugs, or pain medication)
The desire for perfection becomes more pronounced as individuals go through the ranks of competing. Mental health problems emerge when the stakes get higher, causing more distractions.
Taking Care of Yourself is Priority #1
You cannot always just ‘push through a problem’. You need to address it and clarify it by getting counseling. The focus is on understanding the reason for treatment, not in making a point. That is why mental health counseling can make a world of difference. Talking about concerns and relating to people with similar problems means greater fulfillment in everything you choose to do.
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