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Athletes' experiences influence importance of mental health

by Alyssa Daley - Chief Editor
Tue, Apr 3rd 2018 08:00 pm

Mental health within the professional sports community has been as talked about and taboo as it has been in society as a whole. Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star player Kevin Love opened up about his panic attacks this season and his struggles with mental health in an essay entitled “Everyone is Going through Something” for the Player’s Tribune. Former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien just did a story on attempted suicide and some of the other mental health conditions he and other retired pro-footballers have experienced. 

These relevant athletes have chosen to share their stories to hopefully generate awareness and subsequently change how mental health is regarded and handled within the industry, but this is not a topic that has just become relevant. 

Terry Bradshaw, sports commentator and former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, admitted to dealing with anxiety attacks and depression. Barret Robbins, former Oakland Raider, received five years probation and orders to be treated for bipolar disorder in relation to charges in 2005. Willie Burton, former professional basketball player, reportedly has unipolar depression. John Daly, professional golfer on the PGA Tour, has battled alcoholism, gambling problems and reportedly bipolar disorder. Wendy Williams, former U.S. Olympic diver, was diagnosed with major depression in 1994 after a spinal injury that forced her to retire.

The point is professional athletes have suffered from mental health conditions whether it be from the physical, emotional and mental fatigue that comes from the position or from injuries sustained during practice/game play. According to mentalhealthcenter.org, “when an athlete sustains an injury, there is a normal emotional reaction that includes processing information about the injury provided by the medical team as well as coping emotionally with the injury.” Typical emotions can be sadness, isolation and lack of motivation. These symptoms are very similar to those connected with depression. 

According to nfl.com, the National Football League’s and players’ lawyers released data in September of 2014, as part of a proposed $765 million settlement of thousands of concussion lawsuits. The data concluded that 14 percent of all former NFL players will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, with another 14 percent developing moderate dementia over the next 65 years. 

According to sbnation.com, five to 42 percent of former professional soccer players reported to have some mental health problems. Distress and burnout were reported by 15-20 percent of the former players. More than 30 percent of the former footballers reported to have some adverse alcohol behaviors, while 12 percent were smoking. Nearly 20 percent of the current footballers reported to have some adverse alcohol behaviors, while only 7 percent were smoking.

The social world of many organized sports requires large investments of time and energy, often resulting in a loss of personal autonomy for athletes. High athletic identity has been linked to psychological distress when this function of identity is removed, and to overtraining and athlete burnout. These conditions correlate with affective disorders such as major depressive disorder. Competitive failure, ageing, retirement from sport and other psychosocial stressors have also been shown to precipitate depression in athletes. Overtraining has been reported in 20-60 percent of professional athletes. Burnout, the most extreme end of the overtraining continuum, has been reported in approximately 10 percent of elite athletes. Eating disorders among those participating in high-intensity sports reported a prevalence of 17.2 percent for males and 32 percent for females. The injury experience of an elite athlete has been likened to the grief process that follows bereavement, with an estimated 10–20 percent of athletes warranting clinical intervention, with suicide a cause of concern, according to mentalhealthcenter.org.

At this point because of Love’s courage the NBA is now building off of the “workshops” it had in place prior to ensure the negative stigma about showing weakness does not continue to force its athletes to internalize their physical, emotional and mental baggage. Headline after headline has pertained to how little professional sports leagues take mental health into consideration perhaps for the next couple of weeks at least the headlines will read of positive progress rather than negative stagnation.