Sports

It’s an Illness not a Weakness: Mental Health and Athletes

Left untreated mental illnesses can lead to the ending of sports careers and even the end of life. According to a 2015 NCAA study, 30% of athletes self-reported experiencing some form of mental illness. And yet, athletes like Kelly Catlin, a silver-medalist in cycling at the 2016 Olympics, are still found dead in their student-housing with notes describing unimaginable anguish.

Mary Cain, a former professional runner with the Nike Oregon Project, recently released a video detailing her battle with the female athlete triad, a disorder stemming from menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability and decreased bone density. Cain relates how her coach, Alberto Salazar, believed that she needed to be skinny in order to win, accusing Nike of furthering her eating disorder and resulting issues.

In order to get Cain to her “goal” weight of 114 lbs, Salazar gave her birth control pills, which is illegal in the sport. This training caused Cain’s body to become abnormally fragile, eventually breaking five bones while running for Nike. Cain stopped running competitively in 2016 and only recently has returned to the sport.

In October, Harvard hockey player Derek Schaedig told his story of mental illness in The Crimson. Before attending Harvard, Schaedig said he had never “gotten below a B+” in his life. However, after receiving a 56 and a 78 on consecutive tests, he soon realized that everyone at his school was talented in ways that he was not. While he was focusing on the sport he loved, others were more focused on their respective areas. This culture of giving everything you have in everything you do made him feel like he was failing. Months later, Schaedig reached a breaking point when his brain was constantly filled with suicidal thoughts. It was at this point that he finally reached out for help and began his road to recovery.

For Bates Athletes, the added stress of competing both in the classroom and on their respective playing fields can take a toll, similar to what Schaedig describes. This year Bates has addressed the stresses of athletes lives by creating a “committee of coaches and staff meeting regularly to develop a larger-scale mental health promotion initiative for student- athletes,” the Office of Residence Life and Health Education wrote.

“As part of this initiative, all 31 varsity teams have completed a 90-minute workshop starting formal conversations about mental health,” it continued. “After participating in the workshops, all sports teams attended a keynote address highlighting specific strategies for student-athletes.”

Mary Richardson ‘22 of the Track and Cross Country teams is an advocate for the discussion of mental health among athletes at Bates, specifically eating disorders.

In high school, Richardson saw firsthand how her peers struggled with body image in order to be more competitive. She even admitted to feeling those same negative feelings about her body, but becoming a leader and advocate has helped her.

Richardson also represents another difficult part of being an athlete–injury. Richardson last year sustained an injury that put her out for almost her entire freshman year. And though she still felt connected to her team, it wasn’t the same.

“I was in the athletic training room every day,” Richardson said. “I would see [my team] running and feel left out.”

In response to what needs to be done to help athletes with mental health issues, Richardson explained “that people work themselves to a breaking point and this huge mental breakdown. More of a conversation about preparation, as opposed to reaching a breaking point [is needed].”

Mary talking about waiting until a breakdown occurs spoke personally to me. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder last fall while I was going through a severe breakdown. There was lots of discussion of me leaving Bates in order to go home and get better.

I was scared to tell my friends what went on in my head. It’s scary to think that you’re not in control of your own body, especially as an athlete who knows her body so well. That there’s another voice deep inside telling you all negative things too horrible to mention in an article. However, when I began telling my story, my friends began sharing their own struggles with mental health. It made me feel normal for once, knowing that my issues weren’t only my issues. They are everybody’s at some point in their life.

I have been a swimmer for the last 13 years of my life, but this fall I chose to leave the sport I loved to focus on myself and my own wellbeing. Swimming was a part of my identity for so long and any athlete would probably say their sport defines them too. At first I told myself that if I quit I was weak because I couldn’t handle the stress and pressure anymore. Yet, my therapist, who has saved me time and time again, told me during one of our sessions: “Ellie I think we both know you can handle it, the question is what would make you happier?”

Happiness–something that I hadn’t thought of in a long time. I was so focused on getting better that I forgot to remember what made me happy in life. And sadly, swimming competitively wasn’t one of those things anymore–at least for now.

Admitting you have a mental illness is not admitting defeat, but rather the first step to taking back who you are and who you want to be. For me, it was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life. Asking for help was something I only did with homework problems. But, the fact that I am still here at Bates shows how hard I’ve worked to get better, and I am proud to say that.

A common theme that presents itself when athletes begin to experience the effects of mental illness comes when they begin to fail. Catlin believed silver wasn’t good enough, she believed that she’d lose a race if she didn’t make weight, and Schaedig believed that he wasn’t as high-performing like his peers. Everyone experiences these feelings, but with athletes, I believe it affects us more because it’s expected that we take care of it. Another study done by the NCAA from 2003-2012 reported that suicide represented 7.3% of the 477 deaths of NCAA athletes.

Remember that there are always people wanting to help you. Remember that it’s okay to take breaks. Remember that self-care and self-love isn’t selfish. And if anyone reading this has been diagnosed with a mental illness always remember it’s an illness NOT a weakness.

To make an appointment with CAPS please call 207-786-6200. If you would like to help add to the conversation of mental health on campus email healthed@bates.edu

Eleanor Boyle
Staff Writer

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