Letter to the editor: A silent cry for help among student athletes

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The challenges from COVID-19 came quickly and expanded rapidly, starting with Occidental students having to leave campus with less than a week of notice. Then the impacts mounted —  classes shifted to remote learning, most off-campus opportunities ceased and summer plans were disrupted. Because of these sudden and extreme changes, many people have begun to struggle with their mental health, including student athletes. The mental health challenges these student athletes face can be unique compared to non-athlete students, and there should be greater efforts on the part of coaches and teammates to destigmatize and encourage treatment of mental health issues within the student athlete community. 

As a member of the Occidental College swim team, I am not trying to suggest that every student athlete is going through the experience described here or imply that student athletes, when compared to non-athletes, struggle more or less with mental health. Mental health struggles can affect anyone, and coping with them can be a difficult experience and different for everyone. My goal is to share the experiences of a small subset of student athletes to initiate awareness on the part of coaches and teammates about the struggles we may face with our upcoming seasons. 

Student athletes are unable to train in gyms, pools and other athletic facilities, which have been closed to encourage social distancing. This lack of access to training equipment and facilities can cause new levels of stress. Most student athletes are used to committing 20 hours a week to their sport during their season, in compliance with the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division III. For me, the inability to swim and continue my other normal routines for example, attending classes in person have catalyzed my intermittent feelings of failure and loss of control. Fellow collegiate and high school athletes, from different sports, have shared with me their struggles and suggestions for what teammates and coaches can do to help affected student athletes. 

A retired student athlete shared that he would periodically struggle with episodes of depression and anxiety lasting up to two weeks, but because he had a supportive coach and teammates who would check in with him, he never felt isolated or trapped by his mental health struggles. Fellow swimmer Sarah Nelson (sophomore) said she felt exposed after being ripped away from her normal routine. She hopes that her coaches and teammates will understand that “the most important thing will be to keep in mind that not everyone will be in the same space as when we left. Even though someone might have had good mental health, or good coping mechanisms, they could have had to alter these due to [COVID-19]. Understanding and flexibility will need to continue to be used even after we’re back at school as people try to readjust to on-campus life again.” 

I agree with Nelson that coaches need to have open ears and minds in the coming months — dismissing or ignoring feedback could further weaken struggling student athletes, who instead need help finding ways to cope with their mental health issues. Lacrosse player Zoe Nussbaum (sophomore) states, “Not everyone on a sports team struggles with mood/personality disorders, but those of us who do (myself included) really rely on our sports and work out to relieve stress, release endorphins, and give us structure. For me personally, that structure is what keeps me from spiraling and gives me a place where I can just clear my head.” Athletics are a crucial part of our routine which COVID-19 has tampered with, leaving some people in a difficult place. It is going to take much more support and patience to help some people back onto their feet, but we owe it to each other as teammates, friends and human beings. 

Student athletes are often viewed as motivated, hardworking and strong — both mentally and physically. Nussbaum talks about how “mental toughness is such a big part of training and athletics that I think it seems like we aren’t supposed to reach out when we need help.” As Kristin Hoffner, lecturer in kinesiology at Arizona State, explained in Global Sports Matters, “College athletes are at an elite level, and they’ve been taught their whole life to be tough and to push through. Push through angst, failure, feeling bad or down. Athletes and coaches aren’t used to dealing with mental health issues like depression.”

Because of this perspective, many people think of student athletes as having few struggles, and when they do have struggles, they seem easy to overcome. This stigma makes student athletes hesitant to reach out for help with mental health issues. In a study conducted by Drexel and Kean universities, almost 25 percent of collegiate athletes have reported clinically relevant levels of depressive symptoms. According to Global Sports Matter, the NCAA has been working very hard to make student athletes more comfortable with coming forward about mental health struggles, but it’s not enough: “For all the boxes that get checked to help an athlete succeed, mental health at most schools doesn’t get a box; it’s not on the list.” 

Student athletes need to understand that it is okay for someone to struggle with mental health; reaching out for help is not a sign of a lack of mental toughness. Nussbaum explains, “To me mental toughness has always been about your ability to get back up after you fall, your ability to push yourself to the best that you can become and that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. There is a reason we workout in teams.” Despite people repeatedly saying that it is okay to speak up and ask for help, it can still seem near to impossible to some, which is valid. Nelson also talked about the struggles she faced with asking for help: “It took me a very long time to feel comfortable enough to reach out for help, and it’s gotten so much harder because now I’m having to do it all over again to my family.”   

Student athletes must support and be more empathetic toward each other. Coaches need to be more understanding with their athletes, showing compassion and actively listening. But most of all, student athletes need to be kind and patient with themselves. As diver SaraJoy Salib (junior) puts it, “We learn to push ourselves, which is useful and applicable to life to complete difficult tasks, but sometimes it is important to understand that your brain is like a muscle in the sense that it needs rest as well. For example, if you continue to push a physical injury too far it can do more harm than good and same goes with your mental health. There is a difference between grit and malpractice.” 

It can be difficult to deal with someone else’s mental health issues; however, dismissing them is not a solution and will only make matters worse. Our paths as athletes will end one day — for many of us, as soon as we finish college — but mental health struggles may not end when we graduate.  At Oxy, there are multiple resources such as Emmons and Project SAFE who are always there to help. Our athletic trainers and coaches are also there to help. Everyone can help take on the increasing challenges of sustaining mental health during the COVID-19 crisis by supporting each other and breaking down the stigma surrounding the issue of mental health.

Ilaria Simmen is a sophomore Diplomacy & World Affairs and psychology double major. She can be reached at isimmen@oxy.edu.