Athletes and Stigma

As someone who played sports all their life it is no surprise in hearing about the negativity athletes face when they speak up about their own mental health and seeking help. All athletes handle stress, pressure, discipline, and even success in different ways; but that doesn’t exempt professional athletes from being immune to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and more. The Northern Ireland Association of Mental Health has conducted research that shows athletes are more prone to mental illness than the general population. The results from these studies yielded the reason athletes are more likely to develop a mental illness compared to the general population because of the increased pressure to perform, media scrutiny of behavior, intense training, and severe criticism of their performance from their coaches, family, fans, and many others. Unfortunately, there is no focus on treating potential mental illnesses found in athletes the only focus is on winning.

The stigma around an athlete’s mental health can be intoxicating. Athletes worry about their performance and what their fans, parents, coaches, and teammates might think or say if they reach out for help. What fans fail to realize is that it takes a strong athlete to pursue extra assistance, support, and guidance when needed, ultimately realizing that it is better to be proactive than reactive. So, how are athletes and those who support them able to have these conversations? The first step is recognizing that athletes are human beings; they are more than the individual out of the field, court, or pitch. Athletes are consistently bombarded with negative messages like “Tough it out”, “Pain is weakness”, or “Train harder”. These statements perpetuate mental toughness under stress that highlights the stigma even more. Speaking from personal experience, having to “tough it out” often ends in waiting until symptoms are so extreme and severe that they become intolerable, resulting in extensive and intensive treatment and therapy.

Education, having candid conversations about mental health and mental illness, and being consciously aware that it is ok to speak openly of your struggles are many first steps people can take to support athletes who struggle with their metal health. It is important to remember that behind an extraordinary athlete is an ordinary person that needs to be uplifted from time to time.

Miele, L. M. (2016, September 13). Athletic Stigma of Sport Psychological Assistance. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-whole-athlete/201609/athletic-stigma-sport-psychological-assistance.

Muller, R. T. (2016, May 19). Mental Health Initiatives for Athletes Still Lacking. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201605/mental-health-initiatives-athletes-still-lacking.

Stevens, J. (2020, July 23). How to Destigmatize Mental Health Treatment in Sports. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-matters-menninger/202007/how-destigmatize-mental-health-treatment-in-sports.

Written by: Abrea, 2021 Undergraduate Intern

Want to talk to someone who can help? If you would like to speak to a professional counselor or psychologist about this or other negative thoughts and are in the Chicagoland area, please feel free to contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000. We are located at 6819 West 167th Street in Tinley Park, Illinois 60477.

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