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April 14, 2024

It’s okay not to be okay: athlete perspectives on mental health

By GRACE VAN ATTA | October 14, 2021



Student athletes can face both physical and mental challenges due to their lifestyle.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, and 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of mental illness. Among that group, 30% seek help. Of college athletes with mental health conditions, however, only 10% seek help. Among professional athletes, studies have shown that around 35% of athletes experience a mental health crisis ranging from stress to eating disorders, burnout, depression and anxiety.

This past week for Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 3-9), National Alliance on Mental Illness Metropolitan Baltimore conducted a panel with elite athletes for an in-depth discussion about balancing training, performance and mental health.

Four different athletes shared their personal experiences and offered advice to anyone facing mental health issues. The panelists highlighted the call for an end to the stigma surrounding mental health in our society: When athletes don’t speak out about their experiences, the unspoken can transform into something negative. It is important to recognize that struggling with your mental health is not a weakness, and it is not something that you choose. 

Professional athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles recently sharing their mental health battles in popular media has only been a small step towards closing the gap in how society views the treatment of mental health. 

Ayanna Henry, a senior on the track and field team at Morgan State University, detailed the importance of professionals raising awareness. 

“When athletes speak out, and when coaches start conversations, [and] when stories are shared, [it] shows that we are more than just our athletics,” she said. 

Olivia Lubarsky, a women's gymnastics alum of Towson University, sought to remind the audience that not only is it important to put oneself first and to make time for one's mental health, but it is also critical to understand the connection between physical sports performance and mental health. 

Lubarsky compared the treatment of a physical injury to the treatment of mental health: When you injure your ankle at practice, you proceed with caution for the next few weeks. Your mental health should be treated in the same manner with the same level of care and protection. Lubarsky acknowledged that it is challenging to shift the mindset surrounding mental health, but it is necessary to recognize and validate mental health alongside physical health.

Edose Ibadin, a pro runner for Under Armour and the Nigerian national track & field team, spoke about training your mind and your body and how it is much more difficult to train your mind than it is to train your body. 

“I think as an athlete it’s very important that we don’t necessarily judge ourselves based on our performance, but rather judge ourselves based off of the human that we are because we’re people and humans first, and we’re all worthy of love and respect regardless of what our stats might be,” he said.

Resting is being productive. Rest is just as important as training. By giving your mind and your body space, your athletic performance will follow. Often, it may feel like we are solely judged on our times, the distances we run or our competition results, but we are humans before we are athletes. 

With practice, competitions and various team events on top of coursework and extracurriculars, student athletes are often stereotyped and defined by their athletic identities. People often think that student athletes have it easier and have everything handed to them or that they have tutors and extra help to do their coursework and to pass their classes for them. Athletes are thought to be popular and outgoing and to care more about their athletics than their academics. These beliefs misrepresent student athletes, as athletes are often held to higher standards than most students.

Freshman women’s épée fencer Ameera Ebrahim shared her experiences balancing their mental health with athletics and academics in an email to The News-Letter. 

“I feel as though my academic ability can be misjudged by my peers,” she wrote. “Though people don’t come out and say it, I think that there is a misconception that it is easier for athletes to get into the school and [they] have lower academic capabilities than everyone else.”

Ebrahim offered her insight on finding balance

“I find myself planning my entire day to the minute to make sure I have time for everything,” she wrote. “The greatest challenge has been realizing that I can’t do everything. I’ve learned to prioritize what really matters to me and drop the things that don’t.”

Maya Zhang, a sophomore women’s épée fencer, shared what she believes is important to do to erase the stigma of mental health within athletics in an email to The News-Letter. 

“Mental health will affect an athlete’s performance in both sport and school,” she wrote. “Mental health problems are a quiet problem, and the only way to find out about them is to make people feel safe to share how they feel... I feel like it is important to address mental health problems, even small ones, as they come up immediately because they do nothing but fester in my head otherwise.”

Creating an environment free of judgment is critical to addressing mental health before issues escalate to requiring major action.

Christine Wang, a sophomore women’s foil fencer, elaborated on the importance of having a caring and understanding support system. 

“I think athletic teams should work towards always checking up on each other at practice or at other team events, and making sure every member of the team is doing well physically, emotionally and mentally,” she wrote. “We’re here to help each other and are a family at the end of the day.”

From all the athletes who shared their experiences, there was a collective consensus that moving forward, students, athletes, coaches and faculty should look to cultivating spaces free of judgment with a willingness to learn and listen on both ends. Communication and active listening are key to understanding and providing support. 

Mental health is not a competition. It can feel like you are alone, but the best way to break out is to seek help because there is always help somewhere. If a teammate or someone you care about is struggling with mental health, reach out and don’t be afraid to check in on people. 

You are not a burden; you are worth the support.

Linked below are various mental health services including some resources with 24/7 support lines:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255

Crisis Text Line: text-based mental health support.

National Alliance on Mental Health Helpline

The Trevor Project: suicide prevention and crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth.

National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: providing eating disorder support, resources and treatment options.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: resources for those affected by suicide and ways you can help prevent it.

Mental Health America: promoting mental health, prevention and intervention. 

The Jed Foundation: protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for teens and young adults. 

Grace Van Atta is a sophomore from Montclair, N.J. studying Neuroscience and Psychology. They are a student athlete on the women's fencing team. They are a contributing Opinions and Sci-Tech writer for The News-Letter. 

SciPinions aims to offer students an outlet to present their opinion on debates in the scientific, technological, or health fields. The opinions presented in SciPinions pieces do not represent the view of The News-Letter. 

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