North Texas Daily

COLUMN: Athletes’ mental health warrants greater empathy from us all

COLUMN: Athletes’ mental health warrants greater empathy from us all

COLUMN: Athletes’ mental health warrants greater empathy from us all
March 25
13:30 2022

Content warning: The story contains language and content related to suicide and sexual assault.

Behind the gladiatorial belief that athletes are machines designed for competition and combat is the modern truth of humanity behind those who take part in athletics across the world. 

As the societal stigma of mental health has begun to wear off, athletes’ ever-present mental struggles have made their way to the forefront of sports. A University of Toronto study found that over 40 percent of Canadian athletes who competed in the Tokyo Olympics met the criteria for depression, anxiety or possessing an eating disorder. While the study took place among Canadian athletes, the mental health discussion has spanned across the United States and the world.

In the North Texas region, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott opened up about his mental health after his brother died by suicide in 2020. With all the expectations which come with being a star in the NFL, Prescott opening up about his mental health following the tragedy saw both positive and negative discourse.

FOX Sports analyst Skip Bayless called out Prescott for being a weak leader, saying he did not “have sympathy for him going public with ‘I got depressed.’” Scrutiny like Bayless’ creates an even deeper stigma to an already stigmatized topic.

Athletes in the spotlight are expected to have a superior psyche to the average person. When athletes leave, take breaks or take time to contain their thoughts, it can be seen as giving up or quitting on their team. When gymnast Simone Biles exited the Tokyo Olympics due to mental health struggles related to her aunt’s death and former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual assault trial, she too was met with accusations of giving up.

Widely considered a top gymnast of all time, Biles was expected by some analysts to simply get over what was ailing her who essentially insisted a ‘true champion’ would persevere through any mental health struggles they are traversing. What the quitting accusations failed to account for is no matter an individual’s level, no one is immune from feeling immense mental strain.

Mental struggle is not exclusive to professional athletes. Current college athletes are twice as likely to have depression during their career compared after they retire, according to a study by the Georgetown University Medical Center. The study participants included 163 former and 117 current NCAA athletes and found about 17 percent of current college athletes had scores consistent with depression compared to eight percent for former athletes.

College athletes’ mental health has been brought into the spotlight this month due to Stanford University goalkeeper Katie Meyer’s death by suicide on March 1. Meyer was a redshirt senior who had been the Cardinal’s starting keeper since their 2019 NCAA title run. 

Starting for an elite college soccer team, Meyer’s death opened up a conversation many want to pretend is not pertinent — if the pressures of Division I sports can be grueling for star athletes. On NBC’s TODAY, Meyer’s parents wondered if their daughter’s perfectionism in an environment full of anxiety and pressure to perform led to her death.

The death of Meyer is a somber reminder that athletes are people, just like any other students attending university. At 22 years old, Meyer was a nationally recognized college athlete but also a typical college student who majored in international relations and worked as a resident assistant. 

Collegiate sports demand a strong mind and a heavy amount of resolve to play at an elite level consistently. However, playing a sport at a high level does not make college athletes insusceptible to the mental struggles which plague the average student or even the average person.

Pressures can take a toll on athletes across every level of sports. As athletes advance through the ranks, the pressure to perform increases. The sports community needs to collectively reassure athletes that their mental health outweighs the need to please those around them. 

Curtailing the societal pressure to perform regardless of mental state could not only remove monumental weight from athletes’ shoulders, it could save lives.

Individuals in need of help can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255), text TALK to 741741 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Featured Illustration By J. Robynn Aviles

About Author

Reed Smith

Reed Smith

Senior Sports Writer.

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