Do student-athletes tend to have more mental health problems than the general student population, fewer mental health problems, or similar mental health problems? Last Spring, when introducing a speaker talking to UP student-athletes about the particular dynamics of mental health for athletes, I asked a version of this question to our UP varsity athletes. The question is one I also discuss in my PSY/SOC 453 class on ‘Psychosocial Aspects of Sport and Physical Activity’ and it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to answer with research.
Most basic data finds athletes report fewer mental health concerns than comparable non-athlete populations, but researchers generally assume that athletes underreport mental health concerns because of sports culture – high-level athletes are often socialized to be tough, competitive, and averse to admitting what could be perceived as a ‘weakness.’ Though sport culture is changing some, we are still much more likely to hear about famous athletes taking time off for physical injuries than for psychological ones.
So I was both surprised, and somewhat impressed, when a large proportion of the UP student-athletes I surveyed by show of hands last Spring thought athletes were more likely to experience mental health concerns than the general population. I was impressed because our athletes were willing to admit that the pressures and cultures of sport are not always as healthy as we might hope – and that the path of athletic excellence can indeed involve significant mental health challenges.
I was reminded of this experience recently while reading a 2017 book by ESPN journalist Kate Fagan titled What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen. The book tells that story of Madison Holleran – a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania who tragically took her life as a 19 year old first-year college student despite many external appearances of ‘having it all.’ The book, and a thoughtful long-form article on the ESPN web-site titled ‘Split Image’, discuss ways Holleran devoted so much of herself to excellence in athletics, academics, and with friends (at least partially through a carefully cultivated social media presence) that when she achieved her dream of becoming an Ivy League athlete she decompensated in isolation. She made tentative efforts to reach out to friends, family, counseling services, and coaches – but mostly she started to feel as though her inner turmoil and despair were unredeemable failures. To an outsider it seemed she was good at almost everything she did, but inside she didn’t feel good enough.
Madison’s Holleran’s story is not just about sports, but it does say important things about the relationship between sports culture and mental health. Student-athletes often invest massive amounts of their selves and their identities in being good at sports. Those who succeed get many benefits from that investment, but they also experience costs – they often feel a constant pressure to get better and be the best, they sometimes lack the autonomy to make their own decisions and change directions in their lives, and they don’t always have opportunities to explore identities outside of sports that might actually balance their development into healthy adults.
Over the last few years at UP I’ve learned about several ways our athletic department tries to care for the mental health of student athletes who may have concerns; I hope to discuss some of those ways in a follow-up post soon. For now, however, it is worth emphasizing to UP faculty and academic staff who interact with student athletes that mental health concerns can affect even those who seem the strongest. Student athletes often have to fight against the stigma in sports culture against openly acknowledging mental health concerns, but many should and do take up that fight.