Mental Health in College Athletes

By Skylar Stephens

On March 10, 2022, Ohio State lineman, Harry Miller, decided to retire from his career as a college football player. After playing since 2019, he was done with the sport for his senior year. In his retirement announcement, Miller said that his retirement would be for the sake of his own mental health.

“Prior to the season last year, I told Coach Day of my intention to kill myself. He immediately had me in touch with Dr. Candice and Dr. Norman, and I received the support I needed. After a few weeks, I tried my luck at football once again, with scars on my wrists and throat. They are hard to see, and they are easy to hide, but they sure do hurt,” Miller posted on his Twitter account.

Miller’s ask for help was rare since many college athletes express discomfort when discussing mental health. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, only 10-percent of student athletes seek help regarding mental health. Even with the pressure of being great in school and in sports, student athletes hold back from seeking help due to stigma. Kaleb Huggins, a freshman basketball player at Xavier University of Louisiana, said it is rare to speak openly about mental health, especially for athletes.

Kaleb Huggins, a freshman on Xavier’s Men’s Basketball team from Zachary, LA

“When discussing mental health and being an athlete, the excuses are limited because you signed up for this,” Huggins said. “So you have to make it work for you.”

Huggins is a psychology major who aspires to be a therapist and supports discussions around mental health. When it pertains to his own mental health, he said he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to just anyone, but he knows that he can always turn to his mother for support.

According to a study done by Inside Tracker, 68-percent of elite athletes experience depressive symptoms but are less likely to express them than female athletes. Huggins said he encourages other athletes to identify their support system to have the difficult conversations with so they can clear their mind and stay present in their game and in life in general.

Talking about mental health is important but it may not be enough. The reality is that sometimes, the only choice may be to walk away from the game altogether, like Miller did. This is exactly what some college athletes are doing.

“If I want to be the best at my sport and possibly earn more money for my scholarship to help me, there’s a sacrifice that I have to make. But, I feel like sometimes you reach a point where you say ‘enough is enough and I’m ready to take care of me,’” said Karrington Stewart, a sophomore on the track team at Xavier.

Stewart has been running track for 10 years but has had some experiences that have taken her love away from the sport. She has had to miss out on events and other organizations because of prioritizing being a student athlete. After multiple injuries, Stewart has decided to part ways with the sport. Although she plans to no longer compete, she will continue to run because it’s what she loves.

There are many factors that can affect an athlete’s mental state. They deal with social stigmas, pressure to be the best, and the mental drain of dealing with physical injuries, experts found. Chronic pressure not only affects well-being, but also may lead to physical pain.

Karrington Stewart, a sophomore on the track team at Xavier University, from Shreveport, LA

“Without some sort of intervention, stress tends to be degenerative, leading to break downs of both mind and body. Many chronic medical issues, both mentally and physically, have some sort of connection to long term stress,” said Edward Simon, who is a clinical psychologist.

If an athlete doesn’t take care of their mind, they risk harming their body too. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, these factors lead to issues such as muscle pains, weak immune systems, changes in blood pressure, anxiety, and more. The longer they go without caring for their mental health, the worse the consequences become, putting athletes at risk of issues like heart problems, strokes, and damage to memory and ability to concentrate.

“Maintaining a daily practice of cognitive behavioral therapeutic exercises, or mindfulness activities, like meditation, yoga, and consistent talk therapy, can help folks stay ahead of the stress curve,” Simon said.

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