By Anna McKenzie
America’s mental health crisis has necessitated an emphasis on treatment and resources. As it happens, “suffering in silence” is having damaging repercussions across industries, and that includes sports. We admire professional athletes as mentally tough and physically elite individuals, so we don’t often see them as people who would struggle with mental health disorders. But they have past experiences and personal burdens to deal with just like the rest of us.
Fears of getting injured, dealing with criticism, recovering from losses, traveling constantly, and acidic media coverage can all erode an athlete’s sense of well-being.
Not only that, but the pressures of fame and performance can be a significant strain on a pro athlete’s emotional and mental health. Fears of getting injured, dealing with criticism, recovering from losses, traveling constantly, and acidic media coverage can all erode an athlete’s sense of well-being. As the mental health crisis in the US has escalated, more pro athletes have spoken out about their struggles. Several of our national sports leagues have followed suit to advocate for better mental health in athletes.
Negative Effects of Sports on Mental Health
We all deal with pressure in our jobs. We want to be able to keep our paychecks coming and move up in the ranks to build our careers. But what if your physical health were tied to your job status? What if getting sick or injured meant that you could lose your job entirely? And what if your job involved being physically active at a very high level, where you might often be slammed into the ground or other people, or hit by flying objects?
You might then experience some of the pressure and anxiety that pro athletes live with each day. Imagine if your work were also televised. Others could discuss your performance with high praise or scathing criticism. Maybe you will be asked to move to a new city and join a new team at the drop of a hat. Maybe your position will be eliminated. Maybe you will get a golden opportunity you’ve dreamed about as a child, and then fail to succeed in a matter of hours (or minutes). The opportunity may come around in another year or four years … or it may be gone forever.
Unforgiving media exposure, rapidly changing circumstances, physical health challenges, and repeated physical trauma might just be cherries on top of what else athletes are dealing with, such as past trauma, losing a loved one, or personal issues. Thankfully, more professional athletes are pushing aside the stigma to speak out, receive treatment, and become advocates for others who are struggling.
Professional Athletes Highlighting Mental Health in Sports
A number of prominent sports players have stepped forward to champion the cause of mental health in athletes. Here are just a few:
- When NHL veteran Riley Sheahan was arrested for drunk driving early in his career, he wondered if he had squandered his chance to play hockey professionally. But the team leadership of the Detroit Red Wings didn’t squander their opportunity to help. According to The Hockey News, they gave him time off and space to recover from the incident, during which a psychiatrist diagnosed his depression. Now Sheahan has a podcast focused on mental health so that he can help others uncover and treat their issues.
- AJ Brown of the Tennessee Titans acknowledged that in late 2020, he had thought about taking his own life. The Boston Globe shares how he has reflected publicly on his depression and anxiety, both on his social media accounts and at a press conference, to encourage others to take these issues seriously.
- New England Patriots linebacker Josh Uche says he endured a dark period after an injury while he was playing college football. He has now started a mental health foundation for athletes and is looking to create an app to make helpful resources more accessible to them.
Recent admissions and advocacy have been made easier by those who were willing to overcome the stigma in prior years.
Recent admissions and advocacy have been made easier by those who were willing to overcome the stigma in prior years. A decade ago, Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall revealed that he had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. According to The Palm Beach Post, he spoke regularly about what he was going through and felt strongly that it was his responsibility to help “bridge the gap” for other athletes who felt like they had to keep their pain a secret. He and others have helped pave a path for those who are suffering today.
Dealing with Mental Health in Sports
Mental health issues are more prevalent than some may imagine. According to AthletesForHope.org, approximately one in three college students experience “significant symptoms” of mental health conditions, and only a third of them will seek help. Among athletes, only 10% will choose to receive treatment, counseling, or support. And, up to 35% of professional athletes deal with gripping mental health issues now and then, and it may seem far easier to choose to ignore or accommodate these issues than to draw attention to them.
However, mental health crises don’t respect wealth or status. When they come, they can bring life-disrupting consequences, even tragedy. Even though sports leagues are getting on board with helping athletes care for their mental health, it’s up to each one of us to reach out when we feel like we’re struggling (or when we see someone else struggling). At The Meadows, we have programs to fit the needs of elite professional athletes and CEOs, as well as individuals from all walks of life. If you are suffering from mental health conditions, contact us today to learn more about our programs and how we can help.