Mental Health in Athletes

An athlete's mental health is just as important as their physical health. It's okay not to be okay.



Recent statistics have revealed that one in every four individuals will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder. Very few people are immune to experiencing mental health issues. Despite an athlete's active and healthy lifestyle, and physically fit appearance, athlete's are just as human as the rest of the world and can suffer from poor mental health too.


The Invisible Injury

When an athlete experiences an injury, they are treated by a team of trainers, physiotherapists and doctors to create a recovery plan to help the athlete get back into competition as quickly and safely as possible. These plans help guide the athlete through the recovery process, allowing them to complete the necessary steps to heal and rehabilitate their body to return to play.


But what happens when athletes experience mental injuries?


Often times athletes play through these mental injuries. There are a few reasons for this. First, as athletes it is what we have been conditioned to do from a young age. We are tought to be tough, to leave any and all problems at the door and keep grinding through. The logic is that if we aren't sick or injured, we should be able to compete. Second, the emotional side of sport is often overlooked as having much affect on how we show up to competition. But the reality is that how we feel off the field will directly affect how we perform on the field. Lastly, these injuries aren't visible so it can be harder to identify the cause of the symptoms we are experiencing - which can be extremely isolating.


These injuries are invisible, which means most of the time mental disorders in athletes go undiagnosed and untreated and they suffer in silence. However, even when athletes do talk about their mental health, the recovery process can be difficult because results cannot be measured in the same way as physical injuries. We can use emotional scales to track how we are feeling from day to day but emotions are very subjective to external stimuli and change minute to minute, day to day, and week to week.



The Negative Stigma


To make matters worse, mental health disorders often carry a negative stigma with them; this includes social stigmas and perceived-stigmas. Social stigmas typically label individuals with prejudices of mental disorders and sometimes can make people victim to discrimination. On the other hand, perceived-stigma is the internalizing of perceptions of discrimination (how we think others view us), which can lead to negative feelings such as shame, hopelessness, and worthlessness.


For athletes, mental health disorders can often be associated with weakness. As an athlete who has struggled with anxiety and depression, knowing that mental disorders are attributed with weakness can make it very difficult to perform some days. The idea of being perceived by teammates and coaches as "weak" can fester, and it can trigger self-doubt and negative self-talk: "maybe I am weak" or "maybe I'm not good enough" which then turns into a vicious cycle of not wanting to seek help.


It truly can be difficult to see through the stigma. But, it is important to remind yourself that you are strong and you are more than a label. The key is to change your perception. Asking for help is a strength not a weakness! Asking for help means that you realize there is a problem and that you want to fix it. Asking for help will start you on a path toward finding a solution to how you are feeling.


You Are Not Alone


Growing up with a father that suffers from bipolar disorder and personally battling through bouts of depression and anxiety is the reason why I chose to get into the mental performance space. I know that if I struggle then there are definitely others that experience similar feelings and probably need help too.


I attribute my successes through my mental health journey to my great support system of family and friends. Having a support system is key in getting through the tough times. But what is also key is that athletes share their own struggles with mental health to let others know that they are not alone in how they are feeling.


More and more we have seen athletes speaking out about their battles with mental health and there is such a significant power in all the stories I hear. It might seem insignificant to the people that share their stories but sharing their experience positively affects those that are struggling with their mental health and can act as a light at the end of the tunnel.


Unfortunately, not everyone has access to this type of support and have to fight through their battles alone - which is extremely difficult. If you are suffering with poor mental health but don't have a strong support system, I encourage you to reach out to someone. Most high schools/colleges/universities offer free counselling to students. If you feel as if you have no where else to turn, you can find resources here.


What You Can Do


Although mental health can be affected by uncontrollable factors as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, there are many different methods we can use to help improve of our mental health that are within our control.


The first method is talking to someone - a friend, a family member, a therapist, someone that you trust and are comfortable with. Talking about our thoughts and emotions is a coping mechanism that can release some of the weight of those feelings, help you feel supported and can encourage others to do the same. Starting the discussion can be hard because it can be difficult to accurately describe how you feel, but just keep talking. What does it feel like inside your head? How do you feel physically? emotionally? mentally?


Another useful method is to simply ask for help - I know this can feel daunting at first and I think it is because our society has made asking for help seem like a weakness, but I promise you that it is your greatest strength. Again this can be a family member, a friend, or could suggest a visit to your family doctor for a referral to a therapist or counsellor.



Other practices include staying active and eating well. Scientific research shows that regular exercise helps improve self-esteem, concentration, sleep quality, and energy levels. Physical exercise doesn't necessarily mean lifting heavy in the gym or going for a run. This can be as simple as going for a walk every morning or evening.


Scientific research has also found strong links between the food we put in our bodies and how we feel. We have all likely experienced a sugar crash after eating a bag of our favourite candy - I know I definitely have. This is a direct correlation from the food we consume to how we feel. Put this into a healthy framework. By fueling our bodies with healthy foods full of essential nutrients, it can directly improve the function and feeling of our brain as well as our body.


These are the controllable aspects of mental health that we can change to help improve our mental well-being.

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Always remember that you have the power to create a life you love! -Tay

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