Student athlete mental health crisis

Corina Beimers- Staff Writer 

Katie Meyer, Tyler Hilinksi, Jayden Hill, Robert Martin, Morgan Rodgers—the list goes on. On April 13, the list grew by one more name. University of Wisconsin’s track and field athlete, Sarah Schulze, marked another collegiate student-athlete who died by suicide this school year. 

Making the transition from high school to university is an anomaly. You are at a new school, navigating life away from home for the first time, trying to make new friends, and experiencing more academic pressure than ever before. It is a unique and exciting time of life, but it also brings stressors that can be difficult to manage. Student-athletes are learning to balance the same things alongside the demands that come with being involved in athletics. They feel the need to perform during practices and games, push through injuries and physical exhaustion, and become a master of time-management.

“There was a lot more guidance in high school,” Dordt University sophomore soccer player Abby Hogan said. “The increase in independence has caused a lot of self-doubt and comparison.” 

Approximately 30 percent of women and 25 percent of men who are student-athletes report having anxiety, and only 10 percent of them seek help from a medical professional, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Student-athletes are also at a higher risk of depression, substance abuse, social anxiety, and eating disorders. 

Maybe it is your coach screaming and yelling every day at practice, even on the days you don’t think you can take it anymore. Maybe it’s the need to keep your athletic scholarship, otherwise school is unaffordable. Maybe it’s your coach making comments about your nutrition or body composition when you’re already struggling with an eating disorder. It only takes one moment, one small push to feel like you have finally had enough. 

One of the things that athletes grow accustomed to throughout their years of competition is the culture of “mind over matter” or “pain is temporary” or “the best don’t rest.” Even Nike’s famous tagline of “Just Do It” has instilled a damaging aspect to how we view athletics. We have created a completely misconstrued definition of weakness. We believe that we will only succeed if we keep playing when we’re in pain or push through adversity that seems “normal.” 

“One thing that I think has impacted negatively by playing sports is the drive, which is weird to say because every coach that I’ve had, has seen it as a strength,” Hogan said. “Sports have taught me how to work hard, but they have also taught me to blur the lines between hard work and working too hard.”

Where has this culture of sports gotten us? Overall, we continue to see increases in performance throughout all sports. However, we also continue to see increases in mental illnesses in athletes even though being active and playing sports is supposed to do the opposite. 

There’s a lack of conversation happening on our own campus about the stress that student-athletes go through. While other university athletic departments around the country are working hard to learn how to address the crisis, there is little mention of it on our own campus. 

“Coaches have attempted to sympathize only after the topic was brought up, but if they aren’t educated enough on the subject, they may do more harm than good,” Hogan said. “The athletic administration has not addressed mental health.” 

We can’t be scared to talk about eating disorders or anxiety or suicide. These are realities that can’t be glossed over. Dordt has work to do in order to lessen the stigma around mental health, especially in our athletic department. Coaches, trainers, and those who spend extended periods of time around athletes need to be educated on common mental health topics and how to identify them.

If you don’t think that there are people around you who are struggling with a form of mental illness, you’re wrong. Coaches and teammates need to be aware that for some, the locker room, weight room, court, or field may be the source of deep struggle. 

Being put on athletic scholarship and playing throughout four years of university is an incredible experience. It’s not something everyone has the opportunity to do. There’s so much goodness in it that needs to be protected and right now, that means the crisis of mental health in student-athletes must be at the forefront of conversations in the sports industry. 

Not all pain is temporary. We’ve lost the lives of student-athletes because the conversation of mental health has always—and still is—struggling to find its place in athletics. It demands a change in culture, and it demands that it happens now. 

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