De-stigmatizing mental health in college sports

By Jasmynn Innis, Columnist

Conversations among student-athletes about mental health are on the increase, and this should not surprise. Student-athletes face pressures to perform well for their coaches and teammates, while at the same time juggling studies and pressures to excel in the classroom. It can be exhausting. I know this firsthand; I am a volleyball player here at Berry College.

Jazzy Innis is a junior volleyball player from Johns Creek, Ga. Photo by Alex Ruble.

Student-athletes must work to manage their time, and keep up with this scheduling can sometimes seem like too much. The anxiety that comes with knowing that if you are a minute late to the 6 a.m. lift, your teammates will be running while you watch. Waking up early for training, going to class all day, going to practice, doing all of the studying, and then repeating all of this that every day for four years? It’s a grind.

Athletes even struggle sometimes to fit in a meal, scarfing down a snack on the way to practice instead.

I’d like to introduce you to Victoria Garrick, former University of Southern California volleyball player and now an advocate for mental health awareness for student-athletes. Garrick has appeared on TEDx Talks to share her research findings.

Garrick surveyed 100 male and female athletes from various Division I schools, finding that 69 percent reported symptoms of depression or anxiety in the previous five months. Perhaps even more troubling is that more than half said they felt too scared to tell anyone about their struggles.

Four out of five agreed that the topic of mental health is neglected. Why?

If we know so many are struggling, why isn’t the number decreasing? I have a theory. Sports culture perpetuates a narrative that says athletes have to be mentally tough, and if they show any signs of vulnerability, they are weak.

The stigma associated with mental health has proved a durable challenge for student-athletes, even though mental health education is on the rise. At the level of the individual suffer, so many still do not understand what mental health illness is, what it looks like, and what can be done about it. We are conditioned not to seek the help that in many cases we need.

I have put all my identity into my sport. I constantly add pressure on myself to do all my jobs, and to do them well. Be a good captain and teammate. Perform well in competition. Keep myself together emotionally while getting good grades.

Inevitably I fall short, and that is when feelings of shame flood in. We are told we have resources in these situations, but we also fear being painted as weak if we seek out help.

“Being part of this culture makes it so hard for athletes to differentiate between what is hard work and what is pushing yourself too far,” Garrick said.  

This is a huge reason why athletes are not seeking the help they need. It has been drilled into our brains our entire lives that we need to be mentally tough.

“Push through fatigue!” “Where there is a will, there is a way!”

These aphorisms common in sports reinforce that we just have to battle through pain – mental, physical, emotional.

“A physical injury is treated more seriously than a psychological injury, and that needs to change,” Garrick said, and I have to agree. If it is acceptable for athletes to take a practice off for a rolled ankle, why can’t we take a practice off for mental health, as well?

A good starting point could include creating an environment in which student-athletes feel comfortable talking about all forms of health. Many colleges have mental health seminars that they require their student-athletes to sit through, but these rarely cover all or even most of what they will struggle with over their four years. Athletes need to know that these challenges are more common than perhaps they think, and that being vulnerable enough to address them is, in fact, not a weakness at all. It is showing courage, and the same kind of courage that is expected of us on the fields and courts of play.

Another step might be to have coaches go through safe space training so they can better discern the signs of struggle. This could open the door to authentic conversations among coaches and players.

I also think staff should frequently, routinely check in and evaluate how student-athletes are faring. By having someone on staff, athletes can have easy access to a third-party resource who is not their coach. This person could be the bridge between the coach and the athlete.

Competing should be a way for athletes to release stress, not significantly add to it. We can help crack this stigma by normalizing conversations about mental health and encouraging athletes to seek help.

Athletes should be able to enjoy the sport that presumably brings joy to others, the sport with which they fell in love with in the first place.

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