Editor’s note: Many athletes in this story did not feel comfortable attaching their name and sport to their personal experiences. Out of respect for these athletes, quotes from those athletes with mental health stories will remain nameless.
He was a superstar athlete at one of the best high schools in New England, but that still was not enough. There was something that outweighed all the success.
“I was no longer playing my sport in college. I felt lost because something I have been doing daily for my whole life was taken away from me and I began therapy sessions because the adjustment was too much for me to handle, the Castleton University junior said. “I felt like I was not good enough…it translated into other things in life. When I finally started playing again, I felt like I needed to prove something to people. Anxiety would take over and result in a poor performance…it could alter my mood into a depressed one and put me back into the cycle of feeling worthless.”
Being an athlete provides exciting experiences, new relationships, travel, the rush and gratification of success and winning and constant praise. For many athletes, none of these things come without a cost and for many college athletes across the nation that cost comes in the form of anxiety and depression.
Unfortunately, studies show most don’t report their struggles or try to fix them. A study conducted by Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at the University of Michigan of Public Health, found that 33 percent of all college students experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, and or other mental health conditions. Among that group, 30 percent seek some form of help.
When it comes to college athletes with mental health conditions, however, only 10 percent seek help.
Out of about 500,000 student-athletes who compete annually in NCAA sports, 477 died from suicide between 2003-2013, according to a University of Washington study analyzing athlete deaths.
On Jan. 16, 2018, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, committed suicide. He was found with a bullet hole through his left eye with an AR-15 lying next to him. His family struggled to find the reason he shot himself. Hilinski was found to have stage 1 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is often punctuated by behavioral problems, mood problems, and problems with thinking.
“Ty was a great buddy. He was a caring guy. He was a fan of seeing his guys do well on the field and in life…he was always working for the starting spot and graduated high school a semester early. Being overly consumed in sports was not healthy for his depression,” says his close high school friend in a recent phone interview, who also struggles with mental health issues.
Hilinski’s friend also shared his personal experience.
“When you fail, it just makes it that much worse. Playing sports and having depression turns you into a huge perfectionist. Being a perfectionist also carries over to your everyday life and will eat you alive if you let it,” he said.
The clear difference for student athletes is the willingness to open up about a problem and seek the help that is needed. The athletes are not to blame for this. The environment around them plays a big role in the lack of reporting. Student athletes find it more comforting to seek help within the setting of athletic training facilities and find it difficult to ask for help elsewhere, according to Emily B. Klueh, athletic counselor at the University of Michigan.
A study published in “Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” reveals that 72 percent of 127 athletic trainers said treatment for student-athletes took place in counseling centers separate from athletic training facilities, and only 20.5 percent said they had a mental health provider who worked in the athletic training room. Forty-six percent of trainers said they would be able to provide better care to student athletes if mental health services were at athletic centers. They see student-athletes experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, family issues and sports performance issues.
Athletes say having the appropriate staff around and feeling comfortable with them plays a major role in dealing with mental health issues.
“My college athletics experience led to depression because of the pressures and commitments and it began to feel more like a job than something I had fun playing growing up. I had to go to therapy for six months and I haven’t really touched the sport since I quit a year ago due to the negativity of the coaching staff,” a Castleton University student said.
Another reason college athletes choose not to report may be because of the stigma surrounding mental health.
“Student athletes experience mental health issues at the same rate as other students, but they are less likely to ask for help. Many students in general believe that there is a stigma attached to mental health difficulties and we work hard on this campus to teach students that all students face challenges and that it is common for college students to encounter and experience mental health problems. For athletes, there may be more reluctance due to fears that others will see them as ‘weak’ and fears that their coaches and teammates may see treat them differently,” said Martha Coulter, a psychologist and director of the Wellness Center at Castleton University.
Coulter has been working diligently to spread awareness on this issue at Castleton. She speaks with FYS classes and gives presentations to raise awareness about mental health issues.
“My presentation aims to reduce the stigma around mental health issues and informs students as to how they can refer themselves or their friends to get support,” she said
Coulter said a major advocate for mental health awareness for their athletes is football coach Tony Volpone. He invited Coulter to speak with his team.
“Coach Volpone is very aware of the importance of football players tending to their mental health along with all other areas of their health. When he is concerned about a player who might be experiencing mental health issues, he refers them to our Wellness Center,” Coulter said.
Sophomore punter for the football team, Michael Morgan said the talk was enlightening.
“This presentation made me realize that taking care of ourselves mentally off the field is just as important as taking care of ourselves physically on the field. I feel lucky to be surrounded with a staff that cares about us and looks at us as more than just college athletes and would take the time out to address an issue like this,” he said.
Women’s field hockey coach Kristine Kemp is also very aware of the issue of mental health and athletes.
“I had an athlete with a history of mental health illness and cutting prior to college. During freshmen year, she suffered a concussion that put her out for two months. The brain injury really affected her mentally and emotionally. She began having anxiety attacks and her overall well-being wasn’t good, she said. “This particular athlete saw a therapist while her concussion symptoms were resolving and got better. She is now one of the happiest people I know,” Kemp said.
Kemp understands her role when dealing with these issues.
“As coaches, we cannot properly treat these conditions, but I believe it is our responsibility to take action and provide them with the appropriate resources to help them. Showing you actually care is sometimes half the battle,” she said.
Each fall, Castleton University holds the Anxiety and Depression Screening Day, when all students are invited to take a brief screening to determine whether they are experiencing significant mental health symptoms.
If you or someone you know struggles with any form of mental illness do not hesitate to seek help;
Castleton University Wellness Center: (802) 468-1346
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255