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Athletic Departments Can Do More to Support Student Athletes With Mental Illnesses


There are a lot of articles about the pressures of college while you have a mental illness. There are even articles specifically about being an athlete in college living with depression or eating disorders. There is a whole lot of literature in this world on how to meditate, organize and get out to do things while you’re a college student who is struggling. There are resources, help lines and student health centers, even though their credibility may vary.

The past two weeks, however, I’ve found that no matter how many articles are out there or people speaking about their own experiences, the system itself has changed little. I run Division I track at a private university, and simultaneously struggle with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms. What does this mean? It basically boils down to this: I get anxious. I panic, and it’s almost exclusively brought on by the obsessive nature of my own train of thought.

Running, itself, is an incredibly mentally challenging sport. My anxiety has become a part of that racing thought process. Since coming back for my sophomore year, I have been anxious every day, almost all day. Running used to be a break from this, allowing me time to calm down, breath and live in the physical exertion. This year, however, it came with a new set of pressures, and I need a little bit more help. I need support, medicine and ways to actively challenge my thoughts while still being gentle with myself.

This is not what everyone with an anxiety disorder needs. It’s not what every athlete needs. It is incredibly me-specific, and that’s what makes it challenging. I have ways to cope that don’t always line up with being a Division I athlete.

Often, I need to go home on weekends. I require more positive feedback because the negative pieces stick in my obsessive thought cycle. Also, I have panic attacks during races. These are all things that coaches don’t want to hear and that I don’t want to say. It makes me feel like my anxiety is an excuse I get to pull out whenever I get tired.

It isn’t. These are real, logical coping mechanisms I’ve come up with, with the help of a therapist and psychiatrist for a real disorder that I have. This has a legitimate effect on how I perform and how I feel. This is not something I can turn off.

While those are all self-validations, I’ve struggled this season to be clear about this with my coach. For anyone who participates in athletics at any level, you know coaches don’t like excuses, even if they’re valid and reasonable. There are a variety of things that will be said about you if you partake in self-care. Things like, “You’re selfish. You’re letting people down. You’re not being part of the team. You’re not trying hard enough.”

If athletic departments want to take mental health seriously, then they need to come up with alternatives for people who need them. Having a resource page in an hour-long meeting about compliance isn’t enough. Making a nutritionist or therapist available is a good start, but it isn’t enough. These problems don’t get solved with one psychiatrist meeting, and making an athlete feel guilty for needing more time will only make it worse.

So, to coaches, I say, don’t just tell athletes to get help, help them. Make this accessible for them because they want to be part of their team. Guilting them about any accommodations they may need will only make them less likely to seek the help they need. To athletes, continue to seek help and be open and strong with your coaches about how they can help you continue to succeed. You are just as valued as any other member of the team, and it is OK to need different things than other teammates.

To teammates of someone with mental illness, ask the people on your team when and where you can help them. Lift each other up, and expect the same from your athletic department. Do more than just noting resources or sending each other articles. Be an example of a space where mental health is important, accepted and cared for.

Image via Thinkstock.