Athletes starting to break down stigma attached to mental illness

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By Karen Dorantes

People don’t seem to like to talk about mental health. Especially in the athletic community, speaking up about your emotional health can make you seem vulnerable or weak. In the competitive world of sports, that’s the last thing you want to do.

The stigma of mental health issues has been the biggest roadblock for athletes who need help. “Because of the stigma, I was afraid to talk with the woman who worked with our team, because I thought my teammates were going to think that I was mentally weak or if I had these (mental health) issues,” said Chamique Holdsclaw, a renowned women’s basketball player who is now an activist for mental health awareness, in an interview with CPR News.

However, as awareness has grown, more athletes are speaking up about their mental health, and society’s acceptance has seemingly grown as well. Many athletes, even at the collegiate level, have become more vocal because they see that other professional athletes are opening up about their issues. In a way, this has created a chain reaction among athletes, at every level of play, who are increasingly speaking out about what they’ve experienced or what they are going through.

In 2017, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps said he had contemplated suicide after getting his second DUI in 2014. “I didn’t want to be alive,” he told USA Today Sports. “I didn’t want to see anyone else. I didn’t want to see another day.”

Phelps also has talked about not only being an athlete but a human being with problems. “Being an athlete you’re supposed to be this strong person who doesn’t have weaknesses, doesn’t have any problems. No, that’s wrong,” Phelps told Time magazine, “I struggle through problems just like everybody else does.”

In an interview with Psychotherapy Network, Mitchell Greene, a clinical and sports psychologist and triathlete, said that he believes that Phelps’ revelation about his struggles with mental health was a “game changer.” Phelps is among the most successful and most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. Greene said that Phelps opened the conversation for athletes to speak up about their issues because “in many cases, these athletes are still kids with huge amounts of pressure, stress, and expectation on them.”

Some athletes described being at their lowest mental health while being at the peak of their career. Holdsclaw has been very vocal about her struggles with mental health when she was playing championship-level basketball in college and in the pros. She said that when she was supposed to be happy, winning awards and recognition, she was still in a bad place mentally. Holdsclaw told CPR News that when she was a “big star” while playing for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA, “I was just really in a dark place. The mania, this operating in a different space, really detached.”

Other athletes have talked about being in their lowest mental place at the beginning of their career. Olivia Lubarsky, a Division I gymnast at Towson University, wrote in an article on Mental Health America that she believed people often neglect the “prevalence of mental illness that accompanies this demanding lifestyle,” and that when she started she wasn’t aware of the toll these high expectations were going to take on her mental health.

Lubarsky also wrote how the NCAA “conditions student-athletes to withhold displays of weakness, while facing stressors that accompany performing at a high level academically, athletically, and socially.” She said she believes that is why, when her mental health was suffering, she chose to hide it from everyone, including herself. She said that mental health is often “overlooked, dismissed, and hidden” by athletes. She also said that the lack of support for the illnesses and struggles that athletes face by both the NCAA and within individual college departments doesn’t help.

Most of the athletes speaking up about mental health have come public about having mental illnesses, but it’s important to note that just because you want to speak up about your mental health doesn’t mean you have to have a mental illness.

As an article by Here to Help, a website with information on mental health and substance use, points out, “In the course of a lifetime, not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle or have a challenge with their mental well-being just like we all have challenges with our physical well-being from time to time.”

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Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported by the Clare Giannini Fund.