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Athletes and Mental Health: Which Ones Are Open About It?

Athletes and Mental Health: Which Ones Are Open About It?

Athletes and Mental Health: Which Ones Are Open About It?

Even though being a professional athlete is something many aspire to, having an athletic position can be incredibly stressful. The demands of this profession are quite high and can lead to a lot of pressure. In addition, athletes are in the spotlight and have their lives on display. However, for many athletes, mental health is not always discussed when it comes to their performance compared to sports injuries. The reason for this occurrence is the stigma surrounding mental illness and a lack of resources available about mental health.

In reality, athletes at any level can experience mental health issues, and having good physical health doesn’t always correlate to having good mental health. 

This article explores the reasoning behind the mental health crisis regarding athletes, why more athletes are speaking out, and which ones have been talking openly about mental health. 

Why do athletes experience mental health issues?

While mental health issues can happen to anyone at any life stage, athletes, in particular, experience extreme requirements and pressure. As a result, they have more stress triggers than the average person.

In particular, here are some things that can contribute to poor mental health in athletes:

  • The stressful culture
  • Lifestyle requirements
  • The competitive environment
  • Perfectionism

What studies are available about athletes and mental health?

According to a University of Toronto research team study, elite athletes experience mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders at a higher rate than people realize. 

Zoe Poucher, a graduate student in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE). published a paper in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise that discusses how common symptoms of mental disorders are among elite Canadian athletes.  

She discovered that as many as 41.4 percent of Canadian national team athletes and those training for Tokyo 2020 met the cut-off criteria proposed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) for depression, anxiety and/or an eating disorder. This number is compared to approximately 10 percent of Canadians reporting a mental illness in a 12-month period. More specifically, 31.7 percent of athletes said they had symptoms of depression, 18.8 percent had symptoms of moderate (12.9 percent) to severe (5.9 percent) general anxiety and 8.6 percent had scores that suggested a high risk of an eating disorder.

This study also determined that having competed in a previous Olympic/Paralympic Games had a negative correlation with symptoms of an eating disorder and that having been selected to attend the 2020 Games at the time of the survey in late 2019 was positively correlated with symptoms of depression. 

Another finding that researchers did not expect was that athletes who had made the Olympic team had more symptoms of depression than before the Games. 

Athletes and Mental Health: Who is Open About It?

Here is a list of professional athletes that have spoken openly about their mental health:

Simone Biles

In 2021, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the final team Olympic competition because of mental health issues. When this decision was in the spotlight, it rejected the idea that you must be stoic in the face of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Instead, she said it was necessary to “protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Ricky Williams

When he was an NFL football player, Williams was unhappy, isolated, and unsure how to talk about it to his family and loved ones. Then, he was diagnosed with social anxiety, started an antidepressant, and went to therapy, which significantly helped him. 

Serena Williams

Serena Williams has been open about her post-partum depression and talked about its devastating impacts on her performance.

Abby Wambach

Wambach, known as The National Soccer Hall of Fame player and Olympic gold medalist, had spoken openly about her addiction and mental health struggles. She talked about how it all happened after she was prescribed pain pills for a medical reason.   

Naomi Osaka

As one of the world’s most competitive and best tennis players, Osaka missed a press conference and was fined $15,000 for skipping it. She announced later it was due to severe anxiety and depression, and she was uncomfortable speaking in public.

Michael Phelps

Phelps, a record-breaking Olympic swimmer, has been open about his substance abuse issues and suicidal thoughts. He also talked about himself entering a rehabilitation center in 2014 after a second DUI charge. In addition, Phelps has spoken about the harmful impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on his mental health and well-being.

Amanda Beard

Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard wrote about her mental health obstacles with depression, poor body image, self-harm, and disordered eating in her autobiography “In the Water, They Can’t See You Cry.”

Takeaway

Now that more professional athletes are speaking up about their mental health struggles, it is reducing the stigma. However, there is still a long way to go in combatting mental health stigma in athletes, and it’s important to keep talking about these pressing issues. 

If you know someone struggling with their mental health, whether it’s due to athletics or other reasons, be sure to navigate our resources at LGBTQ and All. In addition, if you are a mental health provider specializing in working with athletes struggling with their mental health, be sure to add your name to our list of qualified professionals. That way, you can get connected quickly to prospective clients. 

 

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Danielle Aubin (she/her), Online Clinical Social Worker/Therapist, Roseville, CA

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