I believe being an athlete is one of the greatest gifts life can offer to us. It shapes us as human beings, teaches us valuable lessons, and creates some of the most significant memories that we will carry with us forever. I have absolutely loved being an athlete all my life, and I am so honoured and grateful to have been able to be a part of the varsity women’s soccer program at my university for the past four years.
That being said, there are also certain aspects of being an athlete that can often get overlooked. Student-athletes are placed on a platform by their university, coaches, teammates and community members. They have a job to do; to perform, win games and become champions. It’s to do well in the classroom and get involved in their community. When a student-athlete can’t perform in these settings, it is seen as a failure or weakness. It can jeopardize playing time, and can cause us to become concerned with how we are perceived by our coaches, peers and community at large.
A mistake we tend to make is forgetting the simple fact these individuals are human. They fit into the same stats as the rest of the population when it comes to living with a mental health issue. They can suffer just like everyone else, but they have the added pressure of appearing to be tough, unbreakable, and in control, no matter what they may be going through. This is what we’re told constitutes a good athlete. While it’s true those are good attributes to have, we must take a step back and see the athlete as a human being. A belief exists that when an athlete steps on the court, field, or ice they flick a switch and the only thing on their mind is the game. Sometimes this just isn’t an option.
Mental illness doesn’t take a time out or ride the bench for that person. It’s there, and it can be completely debilitating. Mental toughness can only shield you from a mental health problems for so long, and not taking care of it early can actually make it worse.
Over the years, we have moved mountains as a society to open up a conversation surrounding mental health and its importance. I am so proud to attend a university that makes the mental health of their students and student-athletes a priority. However, we can always do more to help those suffering get through the day. We can ask them how they’re really doing, and offer a shoulder to cry on when they need it. We can pull a teammate aside after practice and check on them if we notice they seem off. We don’t have to know exactly what to say to make them feel better, or give them advice. What we can do is listen to them. We can let them know they are not alone and their feelings are valid; that we’re there for them ready and willing to keep them safe.
HIDING THE GRIEF
My drive from and passion for the promotion and protection of mental health issues comes from my personal life. Multiple of my immediate family members struggle with mental health issues, including myself. My family has been through a lot with my dad being the victim of two drunk driving car accidents and my brothers fight with an extremely rare disease. The weight has affected us. I didn’t realize until I got to university I also struggle with my own mental health. With everything going on I would numb my emotions and hide them from others in order to portray the image of being strong and having it all together. I wouldn’t let myself feel things because it was easier than accepting all the grief present in my life and trying to explain it to other people. It was easier to be numb than sad and overwhelmed.
I remember one of our first home games this season we were cooling down and my coach pulled me aside. She looked me dead in the eye and said,
“You know Scarlett, it’s okay to be sad. You don’t have to hold it together all the time.”
I looked back at her through tears and said, “But I don’t want to be sad, I don’t want people to worry about me.” She told me she knew I didn’t want to be, but sometimes you just have to accept you are and take the proper steps to take care of yourself. The weeks leading up to that I was really struggling, and it showed on and off the field. Having a coach who recognized that and supported me was a game changer.
HIGH-FUNCTIONING BUT STRUGGLING
While I deal with mental health issues, I won’t say I’ve dealt with them as intensely as others. I can not attest to the feeling of being at such a low point I can’t see the light anywhere, or get out of bed in the morning. For those people who do feel that, I want them to know how strong they are for fighting one of the toughest battles out there. But I can say I struggle. I experience anxiety and suffer from bouts of depression. You would likely have a hard time knowing this unless I told you. My therapist described it as high-functioning. It’s there, but the mechanism I take is overloading myself with so much so I don’t have to be alone with what I’m feeling. It may not sound bad, but it can be. The anxiety is present more often, where I over think and over analyze constantly. It stems from what I’ve been through in the past, and the pressure to be ‘perfect’. I needed to be a good athlete, student, community member, family member and friend, all while I was feeling overwhelmed and sad. I did exactly what I tell other people not to do. I bottled it up. I was able to convince my family I was okay when they were worried about me. I didn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling. I was helping other friends and teammates through their own struggles yet I wasn’t paying attention to myself. I didn’t want to admit I was having a hard time. I wasn’t supposed to have mental health issues.
THE BREAKING POINT
This year I hit my breaking point and realized it was time to start taking care of myself. I didn’t want to be numb anymore, and bottling things up became impossible. I needed professional help. So I got it, and I still am. Some days it helps, others it doesn’t. But what keeps me moving forward is the fact that I want to be able to help other people. In order to do that I need to help myself first. It wasn’t fair for me to be advocating to end the negative stigma associated with mental health when I was contributing to that stigma without even realizing it. This pushed me to end the stigma within myself first, and be accepting of the fact that I was going through a lot and I needed to open up to someone about it. I can already see a difference in myself. Mental illness is not something anyone should be ashamed of. It is real, there are so many different types of illnesses and varying degrees, and none of it makes person weak. We can all battle mental illness together. We can be a good friend and ask someone how they are doing. We can sit with them in silence if that’s what they need. We can listen to them and care about them and let them know we want to help them through it, that we’re here for them. They deserve to get through it. Everyone does.
We need to keep the conversation going about mental health, huddle up, and take care of one another. Let’s change what it means to be mentally tough.