As an athlete, mental strength is preached like a broken record.
When you’re running 100-yard sprint repeats in the freezing cold rain, mental toughness gets you through the line every time. When playing a 90-minute game in the heat of summer, mental endurance allows you to keep running, long after your body has grown tired.
But mental illness? That is hardly ever mentioned.
Instead, there’s a connotation that athletes are supposed to be strong at all costs, the epitome of confidence in possession of durable bodies and infallible minds. Unfortunately, this has created a seemingly widespread assumption that mental health issues among athletes are a rarity, but this simply isn’t true.
Mental illness affects one in every four people, and combined with the added pressure of competition, athletes certainly aren’t immune to those statistics.
In fact, I’ve been an athlete my entire life. And I too struggle with mental illness.
Over the last several years, I’ve been battling invisible demons in my mind, fighting to compete in my chosen sport all while suffering in silence from an eating disorder, constant debilitating anxiety and bouts of numbing depression.
It snuck up quiet and slow in the beginning. But before I knew it, I was completely consumed, squeezing every last bit of what I had left of myself into soccer—the sport I’d fallen in love with at the age of three.
But it wasn’t enough.
My grades started to drop as I skipped classes to run on isolated trails or hide in the darkness of my room, sometimes unable to face a crowd of people and pretend everything was okay. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me, all I knew was that I felt trapped, unable to escape my prison and unable to speak up.
I would often lay awake for hours, cocooned in a pile of blankets, staring at the ceiling. As my limbs sunk into the mattress, I felt hopeless.
“How had I gotten here?” I didn’t have a clue.
The worst part was I was terrified that someone would discover my secret, that I’d be ostracized from the athletic community. That I’d be seen as weak, broken, damaged.
But I’m not scared anymore. Mental illness, particularly among athletes, is an epidemic that we have to start acknowledging.
When an athlete suffers an ACL tear, the community typically rallies around them, praising their strength through the recovery process. But what is the conversation when the injury is not physical, but mental?
We spend countless hours training, fine tuning our bodies, nursing aching muscles and ligament sprains, but spend next to zero time discussing the proper care of our minds.
We are taught to be strong, to push through pain, to refuse to let our opponents see us in a state of weakness. This hardwires us to view any issues in the mind as frailty, something to be ashamed of, something to hide.
According to the NCAA Sports Science Institute, student athletes are less likely to seek help for mind related illnesses than non-athletes.
“Mental health has a stigma that is tied into weakness and is absolutely the antithesis of what athletes want to portray,” said Dr.Thelma Dye Holmes.
The conversation needs to change. Because as I learned, mental illness is as real as any physical ailment, needing just as much attention. We have to speak up and call for more education and care, insisting that steps be made to ensure the safety of athletes who live with mental illness.
Athletes such as Brandon Marshall, Keith O’Neil, and Clara Hughes have started to share their own experiences, becoming advocates against stigmatization and paving the way for the rest of us to follow.
Each story—including mine—slowly breaks down the walls we’ve built. By speaking out about these struggles as athletes, we continue the dialogue necessary to stamp out this stigma for good.
“Mental illness is all around us. It affects 1 in 4 people reading this message…We can raise all the money in the world, but people might not go get help. They’re still going to see it as a taboo topic. So it’s important for us to get the conversation started.” ~ Brandon Marshall (player for the New York Jets and co-founder of Project 375, which aims to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness.)
Author: Heather Lacy
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Image: Steve Guzzardi/Flickr