• Aimie Epoch

Athletes & Mental Health

Updated: Apr 3

When an athlete gets injured, there is a team of medical personnel employed to ensure a speedy, successful recovery. However, when an athlete struggles with mental health issues, the approach is very different and can leave many feeling isolated. Many believe that mental illness does not affect athletes, but mental illness is as common in athletes as in the general population.

In our society, mental health has a stigma that is tied into weakness. It’s an ongoing issue in society and is heightened even more in athletes. Athletes are often perceived as physically healthy and “strong” individuals, with the ability to face challenges on their own. This results in a lot of athletes neglecting to seek help and increases stigma surrounding mental health. It’s important to recognize that getting help will most likely improve, not damage, one’s self confidence.

Common risk factors:

Athletes face ongoing stress and pressures of training and competition on a regular basis. The pressures can come from parents, coaches, friends, teammates, or oneself. Negative and verbal comments toward young athletes are seen in increase psychological stress and burnout. To read more about the difference between support vs. pressure, click here.

Physical injuries, overtraining, and poor performance can also leave the athlete with the potential to develop feelings of depression and anxiety. Having an exclusively athletic identity of self-worth can lead to potential mental health issues, especially when self-worth is tied to performance and being on top of the podium.

In addition, retirement from athletics subject individuals to a unique set of challenges and circumstances that can make a person vulnerable to feelings of depression or anxiety. Retirement from sport is perhaps the most important risk factor for suicide in professional athletes. Every athlete experiences an array of different feelings when they leave their sport, and many times that is extreme grief and a sense of loss and purpose. The process of retirement is difficult and it’s in this time that social support and communication are vital to the mental health of athletes.

What are some ways athletes can build mental health resilience?

Research shows that reducing your exclusive identification with your sporting role and expanding your self-identity to other pursuits decreases the likelihood of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. This does not mean that athletics aren’t important or don’t identify you. It means recognizing that you are more than your sport and what your body can do. It’s so important to cultivate a sense self-worth and identity outside of your sport.

Understanding that athlete bodies come in all shapes and sizes is critical to the mental health of athletes. The belief that there is one ideal body type for athletes cultivates poor body image, eating disorders and poor self-esteem. An athlete’s body changes as they go through various stages of their athletic career: heavy training, competition season, off season, retirement, etc. Regardless of body size, any athlete is much better off eating for normal growth and repair. If someone isn’t in “good enough physical shape” to be able to execute something, then it would be about strength and endurance training.

It’s also important to recognize that athletes don’t have to maintain the “super-human” identity. Athlete’s don’t have to “handle things” alone and reaching out for help does not make one less of an athlete. In fact, it makes someone a good athlete. Psychological ailments are equally as important as physical ailments because your mental health impacts your performance too. For everyone, especially athletes, seeking out mental health assistance is a proactive and brave decision.

Athletes Get Real About Mental Health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/1437/athletes-get-real-about-mental-health

Hudson, J., Hiripi, E., Pope, H., & Kessler, R. (2007) “The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication.” Biological Psychiatry, 61, 348–358.

Zhao, Y., Encinosa, W. Update on Hospitalizations for Eating Disorders, 1999 to 2009. HCUP Statistical Brief #120. September, 2011. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb120.pdf

Ziegler, P.J., Khoo, C.S., Sherr, B., Nelson, J.A., Larson, W.M., & Drewnowski, A. (1998). Body image and dieting behaviors among elite figure skaters. International Journal of Eating disorders, 24, 4.