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Why Mental Illness in Student-Athletes Flies Under the Radar

Transitioning from high school to college often brings immense pressure. Students are greeted with new social experiences, academics become increasingly challenging, and success is often defined by who has the most outside commitments.

With so many students trying to outdo one another, mental health deteriorates. We know this, and many have courageously rallied by speaking out and supporting one another to reduce stigma.

But knowing that students and athletes bring the same insecurities when coming to college, athletes often fall under the radar.

Athletes face constant pressure throughout their day-to-day lives. While managing academics and workload is an obstacle in itself, athletics often overwhelm their entire schedule. To a student, time management is something they pay close attention to, but to the athlete, it gains an entirely new meaning.

One study noted that black athletes spend three times as much time on athletics than on school, with 60% of all athletes finding it difficult or very difficult to balance athletics and school. Over 98% of student-athletes don’t move on to professional sports. Thus, it’s not too surprising that many feel overwhelming pressures of succeeding in school, because they don’t have the time to do so.

Furthermore, many athletes are held to unreasonable expectations. Shut up and dribble. You have a scholarship, why should you get paid? Not considering that everyone but the athletes themselves can make money off of their own name, or that playing a sport doesn’t disqualify you from having in an opinion – sometimes it seems they’re talked about as mere entertainment, rather than humans with goals and ambitions.

At the University of Virginia, Kyle Guy and Isaiah Wilkins are just two examples of how mental illness can go unnoticed for athletes. After the 1-seed men’s basketball team suffered a stunning defeat to the 16-seed University of Maryland, Baltimore County – the first of its kind in history – Guy was barraged with insurmountable criticism and threats. As Guy noted, “At that very moment, I let the pressure sink into my mind.”

In another interview, Wilkins recounted how he dealt with depression and anxiety. “It’s just tough, just a lot going on inside of my head,” Wilkins said. “I feel like I live inside of my head a lot. There’s a lot going on upstairs. Don’t really feel like doing things. … Kind of feel hopeless, like, ‘What’s the point?'”

Even more so, for female athletes, eating disorders can run rampant. In a society and culture that shapes ideal bodies, many women suffer. This becomes even more problematic when coupled with the stresses of sports – healthy eating and maintaining a fit outlook. Anorexia and bulimia is twice as rampant among athletes versus the general population of women, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

As Kally Fayhee, a swimmer at the University of Michigan notes, “I started having anxiety of living up to the expectations. Because I didn’t have a lot of balance and because I truthfully didn’t know how to mentally process all of it, the anxiety started to kind of spiral, and I wasn’t able to cope.”

Stories like these shed a ton of light into how the stigma is shaped around student athletics. Male and female athletes alike are often competitive in nature, and can often thrive off of the pressure when stakes are on the line. But they are only human – when the pressure becomes unreasonable or unbearable, we have to be sure that the necessary resources are there to aid them.

20% of people will face a mental health issue each year. For student-athletes, 10-15% have a diagnosable mental health issue that warrants counseling, and 50% felt distressed in the past year. Let’s do our part in not only speaking up about collegiate mental health, but taking special care to acknowledge our student-athletes.

If you are struggling yourself, the UniWellness team encourages you to reach out and schedule an appointment today.

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Our goal is to reduce barriers by connecting students to mental health care whenever and wherever because every person matters and every illness hurts

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