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Mental health issues in athletes: The conversation we should have always been having

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A digital drawing of student athletes in the locker room, one of which is off to the side, looking upset.
Image credit: Jasper Palleson, 42Fifty

In recent years, the mental health crisis has risen to an all-time high, but people are also slowly beginning to talk about it. People are learning how to ask for help and seek support, but we should be talking more about how athletes struggle with their mental health, too.

On Friday, Oct. 22, Oswego East senior Mark Chapas died by suicide.  

While his death did bring attention to mental health issues in young men, mental health issues in athletes still have not been talked about enough.

Many athletes struggle with their mental health, and it also affects their performance on the field.

“A quote that I typically use is, ‘you have to feel good to play good,’” JV softball coach Tiffany Murphy says. “[Mental illness] can negatively impact them with stress, anxiety, pressure…it can deter some kids from wanting to play to have added stress from their plate when they’re already dealing with all of their mental health issues.”

A student athlete, who asked to remain anonymous, also expressed their concerns via email.

“The amount of pressure placed on student athletes alone is isolating because we feel like a failure when we can’t handle it anymore or alone when we can’t express our feelings,” says the student. 

The anonymous student also voiced their reasoning for the public not speaking up about these issues. 

“Being in the spotlight all of the time as an athlete can be isolating because it is just assumed that you have it all together just because you show up to practice every day with a smile and perform as if nothing else is going on,” the student says.

Murphy, who, while coaching softball, emphasizes speaking up when struggling, explains that many athletes may have concerns speaking up for fear of being discriminated against.

“I feel like some kids are afraid because they feel like they’ll be treated differently or it’ll affect their playing time for their given sport,” Murphy says. “However, if they speak up, and their coaches are well aware, their coaches can help them through any issues that they’re having and get them physically and mentally healthy to get them playing in the games.” 

Attempting to play a sport while also struggling with mental health issues is not an easy feat. Athletes must try their hardest to play their best while at the same time putting on a brave face for their coaches. The anonymous student also emphasized this. 

“I think athletes have a tendency to bottle up their emotions because of the pressure placed on us to maintain this perfect image that we have it all figured out and that our level of eliteness means we don’t have any struggles behind the scenes,” says the student. “Another reason athletes tend to bottle these emotions up is because they don’t even have the time to think about them or waste more energy on expressing those feelings.

Now, even on a larger scale, the general public hardly talks about mental health issues. These issues have only been talked about in recent times, with athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps publicly sharing their stories.

“I think the general public is more concerned with the scores and how well a team is doing that they… try to hide or don’t speak about the serious issues at hand,” Murphy says. 

An anonymous student also voiced their reasoning for the public not speaking up about these issues. 

“Being in the spotlight all of the time as an athlete can be isolating because it is just assumed that you have it all together just because you show up to practice every day with a smile and perform as if nothing else is going on,” the student says.

While the culture of is prominent in the sports world, the issue of the scores mattering more than an athlete’s well-being can also negatively affect an athlete mentally. When a player doesn’t live up to audience expectations, it takes a toll on their mental health, leaving them with a feeling of failure. 

How the coaches and teammates handle this, however, is up to them. 

“As a coach, you need to learn about your entire aspect of the player, not just how fast they can run from home to first, or how far they can hit the ball, how fast they can throw the ball, or different things like that,” Murphy says. “Coaches are there for their players, but sometimes players need their fellow teammates to be there for them as well.”

The anonymous student then explained their views on coaching.

“A degrading and overly strict coach can put an athlete down and definitely mess with their mental health,” says the student. “However, it is super helpful to an athlete’s mental health when they have a coach that lifts them up instead of putting them down that can help them through their struggles with [their] mental health.”

When the student was asked about how the term ‘quitter’ made them feel, they explained their frustration.

“Athletes struggling with mental health issues have been deemed “quitters” time and time again in the media, which has instilled in young athletes that they should hide their struggles or else they will be publicly embarrassed for those struggles,” the student says.

We can continue to battle against this issue, but we must break the stigma before anyone can do anything about it.

Organizations such as The Hidden Opponent have been created to break the stigma against mental health issues in athletes. 

If you are an athlete struggling with your mental health, you are not alone. Here are nine sites you can visit to seek help. 

If you would like to donate to the Chapas family, they have set up a GoFundMe here.

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