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February 13, 2020

A Student-Athlete’s Battle With Mental Health

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“I experienced body-shaming from my coach; it made me feel like I was not good enough.” These are the words of Kristi, a Division I student-athlete who has been struggling with her mental health while competing at her ‘dream school’. She is not alone; about 22% of young adults aged 18-25 experience any form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. While many institutions are including an athlete’s mental well-being as a necessary part of overall health, there are still many student-athletes around the country who struggle with their mental health, such as Kristi. 

Athletes are frequently placed in a position to be criticized and judged. It is a commonplace to compare oneself to the competition and to do whatever is needed to win. Such thoughts and actions can cause someone’s mental health to suffer.

Kristi has battled consistent negative thoughts and feelings about herself for some time, but the direct comments from coaches and teammates about her body and athletic ability were detrimental to her perception of herself. When discussing events that may have contributed to her struggles, Kristi states, “ I can recall times when my coach told me that I was too fat, too big, or any other description directly related to my body. These comments hurt me.”

Similar remarks like these were repeated while Kristi was recovering from an injury that took her out of play for months.

Injuries are an unfortunate reality for many athletes. Kristi was sidelined for four months due to the severeness of her injury. In order to recover correctly, she was not allowed to practice with the team and working out and was limited to little to no physical activity at all. This was a tough time for her because she felt disconnected from her teammates and coaches. She also felt overlooked and underappreciated, “not only did I receive comments about my weight, but I was also told things like I was useless to the team. Obviously, it really hurt me to hear these things from my coaches.”

After hearing such comments, Kristi began to exhibit symptoms of depression and began to change her eating habits. According to the National Eating Disorder Association reports that attitudes and symptoms of anorexia nervosa in over 33% of female athletes (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/eating-disorders-athletes ). She also began to spend less and less time with friends and always felt like she was alone.

It became clear to her halfway through her first semester of sophomore year of college that it was time to address her struggles. “I noticed that I was sleeping and disliking myself more, and I knew it was time to do something,” Kristi told her parents, sibling, coaches, and her boyfriend about how she was feeling while also seeking treatment from her University’s mental health doctors. During this time, she was diagnosed with depression, early-stage eating disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. “This was tough for me,” Kristi says, “I was ‘invincible,’ I could not even imagine this life for myself years before.”

The resources recommended that Kristi find something that she loves to do, something that is just for her. As an athlete, Kristi turned to exercise as a way to relieve stress and help her focus. “All my life, running was used as a punishment for doing something wrong in practice. Because of my injury, I could not run for a while, but once I started running, I wanted to do it, I enjoyed it. This was something I could do whenever I wanted to, and it really helped me realize that it was time to focus on myself and my health.” 

Her recovery is a long and challenging process but is immensely important. Kristi believes that her mental illness does not define her. Being an athlete was the major contributor to the cause of her struggles, but it was also a part of the solution. “As a student-athlete, people will always tell you that it is a challenge, but it is always worthwhile because of the sense of community you will feel. You know that you are skilled in your sport when you play at such a high level, but this competitive nature can also cause too much comparison and being too hard on yourself ”she mentions, “It can be very difficult to balance.” 

She mentioned her battle with mental illness to her teammates, they tried to be supportive, but many did not know how to react to the situation. Kristi wishes that others would be more conscious about what they say, “one time I overheard some of my closest teammates talking and complaining about how they did not understand my mental health struggles. That was really difficult to hear because while I know there is a stigma around mental illness that many are trying to overcome, it is clear that it is still a stigma.” While her teammates had no intention of criticizing Kristi, their words were very hurtful.

Kristi wants people to be less judgemental of those who are battling mental illness. She states, “my parents always told me to treat others like you would want to be treated. Hopefully, we will see more of that.”

For those who are struggling with their mental well-being, Kristi recommends reaching out to someone you feel comfortable talking to. It may be difficult to admit to others what you are feeling, but letting others be aware can make a significant difference. She also encourages finding something that you love doing. “For me, running helped me feel like myself again. Other things, such as staying organized and listening to music, keeps me outside of my head when things are getting tougher than normal.”

There is a National Helpline number available 24 hours, seven days a week for any who would like free and confidential referral and information about either mental health or substance abuse can be reached at 1-800-662- 4357 (https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline).

The NCAA has included resources in regards to mental health education through its website, which can be very useful(http://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/mental-health-educational-resources). 

The National Athletic Trainers Association provides information about mental health. (https://www.nata.org/practice-patient-care/health-issues/mental-health). 

Edited by Caroline Kurdej

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