Last week, we discussed the policies and protocols in place for the treatment of UNCG’s student-athletes seeking help with mental illness. This week, we examine mental health stigmas and physical causes of mental health issues in student-athletes.
Anonymous student-athletes and Jay McCloy, Assistant Athletic Director for Health and Sports Performance at UNCG, all agreed that there is a stigma against student-athletes reaching out for help with mental health problems.
“They’re afraid that someone may think badly of them because they’re struggling,” McCloy claimed. “So they don’t want people to know that on the outside they may look great, but on the inside, they’re struggling… If a student-athlete suffers from depression, they just don’t want their teammates to know. They’re thinking, ‘If my fellow athletes know I have depression, they may not look at me as a leader or a starter.’”
The stigma in place carries weight, and is certainly not limited to UNCG. It is ubiquitous through all levels of competition, though changes are in the works.
These changes stretch from NBA player Demar Derozan to NFL lineman Joe Barksdale. Players are now talking about their struggles with mental illness. It seems that the public is slowly starting to accept athletes as human beings with emotions and feelings.
Even with these developments, the shadow of that ugly stigma still looms over some of UNCG’s student-athletes. It’s difficult for anyone to open up about their mental health, but with so much on the line, it can be even harder for student-athletes.
How can a student-athlete be comfortable talking to their coach about mental illness when it’s their playing time and the coach’s job potentially at stake? After all, collegiate sports, when all is said and done, is about winning. If something comes up that might put your chances of winning at risk, it’s hard to talk openly about it.
This train of thought, however, is unfair. A player wouldn’t lose their starting spot because they sprained their ankle. They wouldn’t be penalized for having a mental illness, either. These conditions are often rooted in physical causes, just like a sprained ankle, and just like a sprained ankle, mental illnesses are treatable.
This stigma is slowly being addressed on a national level; UNCG is doing its part, but it’s an uphill battle. After all, this is not the kind of issue that is resolved overnight. This issue is a generational one. All UNCG can do is make their resources openly available to all student-athletes and create an athletic environment conducive to positive mental health.
Athletes are at a higher risk for another cause of mental illness: head injuries. Concussions and mental illness have been unequivocally linked, both during and after symptoms have subsided.
Furthermore, according to McCloy, people who suffer concussions heal quicker if mental health issues are not already present.
Though concussions most severely affect the sport of football, and though UNCG does not have an official football team, they do have a club team with its own trainers. UNCG also has a prominent soccer program, and soccer has also been linked to concussions. Volleyball and basketball both pose concussion risks as well.
UNCG, however, has a strict concussion protocol in place. According to McCloy, student-athletes are required to report all suspected head injuries to their trainers. After that, they’ll be evaluated, and if it’s deemed they have a concussion, they’ll be held out of all activities until their symptoms subside.
If their schoolwork is making symptoms worse, they can work with UNCG’s Office of Accessibility and Resource Services (OARS) until they’re ready to come back to class. In a scary situation, it’s comforting that UNCG takes head injuries so seriously.
In fact, it’s comforting that UNCG takes their student-athletes’ health so seriously in general, be it mental or physical. There’s still work to be done and UNCG is making great strides, but responsibility also falls on us. Sometimes, we think people are bigger than life, even though no one is. Sometimes, we forget to take care of ourselves and those around us. We need to do better—we all need to do a little bit better.