The Importance of Removing Stigmas When Addressing Athlete Mental Health

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A number of professional athletes have gone public with their decision to prioritize their mental health. Among the brave individuals who exemplify this trend are Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles, four-time Grand Slam tennis champ Naomi Osaka, and basketball stars Kevin Love and Ben Simmons. Addressing mental health is a process that can require athletes to take time away from their sport, and these elite athletes found that their anxieties had to be addressed before they could move forward with their performance goals.

Often the athletes who stepped back were met with harsh comments. They were called selfish, cowardly and narcissistic. Critics mused that they were weak, but is this view warranted? Or is it an archaic way to describe necessary measures for athletes who felt pushed to the edge?

This criticism sends the message that when we put our mental health first, we may be viewed by others as incapable of getting past difficulties. Taking care of one’s mental state is not yet recognized as valid in the same way addressing physical injury is, even though both can be equally debilitating.

That said, attitudes around mental health within elite sports may be slowly improving, though we can do more to reduce the stigma for those who seek help. We must affirm that reaching out for help is not weakness, but instead reflects a strong, smart and proactive decision. This message is important for every age and fitness level.

Stigma persistence

Even as preventive mental health support is gaining traction, it is underutilized, especially among men and college athletes. These groups may be more sensitive to signs of perceived weakness and may stigmatize mental health challenges. How we deal with suffering is at the heart of this topic, because both of these groups are likely to be praised for their ability to push through pain.  

The need to address this issue is urgent. North America continues to see a rising prevalence of deaths of despair. These deaths are most common in working-age men, and the term describes suicides due to hopelessness and the inability to cope with chronic stress.

Root causes of suicide vary, but loneliness and low self-confidence are common risk factors. Gym visits can directly counter both risks by helping visitors build a sense of community and improve how we feel about ourselves. When mental health problems are severe, however, they require professional help. A first step to receiving care and support is being able to speak openly about what you are going through.   

Addressing this societal issue requires that we destigmatize mental health challenges. This is crucial because negative stereotypes about psychological issues are often internalized. As a result, many sufferers avoid seeking help.

Research on mental health stigma confirms a high presence in male-dominated professions, and this extends to current and former military members. Studies confirm that stigma is a risk factor for worsening depression. And research also points to why: As stigma rises, we are less willing to disclose our symptoms to others, adding to feelings of hopelessness and isolation.

Students not immune

Much like military members, internalized stigma predicts poorer mental health among undergraduate and graduate students, too.

The 2021 Healthy Minds survey revealed that students with suicidal ideation had heightened awareness of the negative stereotypes about those with mental health issues. This awareness coincides with a lower willingness to disclose their own emotional state, even though they may need help the most. The survey indicated that all measures of stigma were associated with a greater likelihood of self-harm and more severe symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Disclosure matters. It’s the first step on the road to getting adequate mental health support. And it can help to de-escalate suicidal ideation. Early intervention is the key to preventing a crisis, yet stigma presents an obstacle to care.

Health professionals on campuses continue to encounter students who have endured symptoms for months or even years. These are often advanced progressions of stress-related mood disorders that could have benefitted from early intervention. How can we reframe the mental health topic in a way that increases our willingness to ask for help?

Student-athletes under pressure

Student-athletes are one of the groups that may delay getting help. Mental health stigma can be a major obstacle because it may threaten their sense of identity. It’s understandable that athletes want to identify with strength. This is part of their shared identity as outstanding members of their team or sport. And with their busy schedules and high expectations, they can be overwhelmed by any threat to their continued ability to compete at their highest level.

Despite recent awareness campaigns and efforts to include athletes in mental health initiatives, many are still reluctant to seek help. A study of competitive athletes between ages 15 and 24 found that stigma was the largest perceived barrier to seeking help.

When others encourage sharing emotions, however, it helps athletes to open up. Encouragement from others matters, particularly if others affirm that it is okay to seek professional support. This was especially true of coaches, who can help athletes see that they are worthy and deserving of better mental health. Student-athletes must be surrounded by permissive signals that they can and should prioritize their mental health ahead of their athletic performance goals.

Improving the narrative

It takes a growth mindset to believe that one’s mental health can be improved. Perhaps the individual who reaches out for help can understand that their motives are not due to weakness, but instead reflect strength. After all, a willingness to disclose mental health issues is not an easy or comfortable choice, especially at first.

Coaches and trainers close to high school and collegiate athletes can play a crucial role in helping athletes recognize when their mental health is at stake. They are often the first to notice changes and can have personal conversations that urge athletes to take proactive steps. The same expectations to maintain their physical health must be extended to mental health. Reminders about the tools available to do so are critically important.

The stigma surrounding mental health is slowly changing in society at large, but there is still a lot more work to be done. Affirm the decision of athletes to put their mental health first, and encourage friends, family and the athletes in your life to seek support when they need it.

Mental health support makes us more resilient. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, and supporting this vulnerable step forward can be a life-saving choice.

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