Those star athletes are worthy of our society’s adoration. They are never afraid of a little adversity, no, not as they stare down the competition with a gleam in their eye that says, “I know I will win.” Physical exertion doesn’t phase them in the slightest. Compared to everyday folks, they are stronger, faster, and tougher. They are better, both physically and mentally.
Well, that’s a description that would be pretty difficult for anyone to live up to, and most athletes can’t live up to it. While we are cheering and shouting out the praises of our favorite athletic competitors, it becomes quite easy to forget that they are just as human as we are. As humans, we all face some challenges that may take a bit more than willpower alone to overcome.
One of these challenges we face in life is with mental health. A significant portion of the population have a mental health disorder. That’s one in five people, and while we may like to believe that their physical prowess also strengthens their minds, elite athletes are not impervious to mental health issues either. In fact, the mental health of top-performing athletes is even more vulnerable, with one in four athletes affected by a mental health disorder. That is no small number!
Athletes Are Struggling with Their Mental Health
One in four athletes suffering with mental health while just one in five members of the overall population do? Yes, it is surprising, but it’s true.
A greater percentage of elite athletes have mental health disorders than those in the general population (1). Yet, it’s no wonder that this may surprise you. The image of an athlete is tough, strong, and inconsistent with the idea of mental illness.
That image and the pressure to live up to it is among the many reasons behind athletes’ struggles with mental health. While society wants to see athletes in an idealized light, they still deal with insecurities, anxieties, and mental health obstacles. Their vulnerability really just comes down to one thing, being a human, but of course, as athletes, there is a bit more going on.
Consequences of the Athletic Lifestyle
The lifestyle of an athlete has its difficulties. From training, through game day, and into early ends to a career, there are challenges. Rather than the success of an athletic career guaranteeing perpetual life satisfaction and the end to all your troubles, living the life of an elite athlete can be troubling in itself.
It is simply a part of the job for athletes to push themselves to their limits as they routinely engage in rigorous physical training. It’s a normal part of an elite athlete lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a part of the stressors in an athlete’s life. Training builds up physical strain as well as psychological stress.
At the same time, while exercise is beneficial to mental health, excessive time spent training takes time away from other activities and habits that can be just as essential. Crucially, it can take away from a good night’s sleep. As a solid sleep schedule is one of the best gifts anyone can offer themselves for better mental health, losing that for training is obviously not ideal.
As the worst-case scenario, one potential outcome of so much taxing training is the overtraining syndrome (OTS). “This is where the human body attempts to cope with physiological and other stressors including physical training, sleep loss, exposure to environmental stresses, occupational pressures, change of residence and interpersonal difficulties.” (3) Sharing many of its symptoms with depression, this is a challenge all on its own. The stress of being an athlete can easily be too much.
The difficulties of an athletic career don’t mean, however, that there isn’t a love for the sport and the lifestyle. For many athletes, their sports participation is what provides them a purpose, so having to step away, even only temporarily, can be a difficult thing to do. Perhaps because of this, sports injury is one of the greatest risk factors for psychological distress for athletes (3).
A higher incidence of depression has been particularly noticed among athletes suffering a physical injury. For athletes, physical activity is their life, and that is lost to them when they are injured. For some, their worth is tied up with their performance in the sport, which not only makes injuries a low point, but can also make retirement a real challenge.
Transitioning Into Retirement
For professional sports players, retirement comes much earlier than it does for most other careers. Often, it comes earlier than an athlete would like. Sometimes, it comes along with a significant impact on an athlete’s mental health.
The transition to retirement can be very stressful for athletes, who are often really invested in their careers. When it comes, it may feel like everything is changing so suddenly. Their whole world turns upside down, often without any preparation. Trouble coping with this major life change complicates mental health for retired athletes.
Stressors of the Sport
Whether actively engaged in athletic competition or moving onto other activities, being a sports player brings plenty of stressors. There’s a certain image of the star athlete that top performers feel the constant pressure to achieve. Engaged in a job so marked by competition, athletes may constantly expect more and better from themselves.
Pressure to Perform
Athletes, especially those on the elite level, are under a lot of pressure. It is not just the training times and physical exertion; it is the expectations to win. Mental illness is so prevalent among athletes, in large part, because of the constant pressure to improve performance (7). All of the stress can be enough to amplify any poor mental health situation.
Ambition and Perfectionism
These pressures don’t even need to come from external sources. Those that have found themselves in a position of success through their athletic career are likely to be those that have pushed themselves into such a position. Many of the elite athletes are high-achieving perfectionists (8), dealing with all the downside of perfectionism. Perfectionists may never feel like anything that they do is good enough, and it’s the mental health of perfectionist athletes that suffers for this.
Reluctance to Seek Help
There isn’t something just in being athletic that disturbs good mental health situations. Elite athletes have sources of stress and distressing life events, just like anyone else. Essentially, they are just human. Regardless of any tough image they may work to maintain, they can be just as vulnerable to mental health disorders. The important thing is that they get help for their mental health when it’s needed.
The real problem is that many athletes just don’t. There are a variety of reasons behind a reluctance to seek help, including a desire for social approval, pride and the idea of mental illness as weakness, and a fear of losing their career standing. Essentially, much of the reluctance that is shown by athletes relates to the stigma around mental health.
Understanding Mental Health Stigma
Despite all the work that has been done to raise awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, stigma is still one of the biggest barriers to helping those with a mental illness. For athletes, this may be particularly true. The professional sports world is not always accepting of mental health struggles. The stigma means that athletes may fear losing their reputation or losing their ability to continue playing the sport they love. The mental health stigma means that athletes don’t get the support they need when they most need it.
Addressing This Mental Health Vulnerability
Mental health can be a tricky topic, especially within the world of professional sports. We have begun to see elite athletes share their stories, but most of those speaking up are at the end of their careers, and it is still not enough to break down the stigma, open the athletic field up to true acceptance, and turn uncomfortable conversations into the change that’s needed.
Strong, tough athletes are not immune to mental health struggles. In fact, the top-performing athletes may be even more vulnerable, and that’s okay. It shouldn’t have to be a secret, no matter who you are. We need coaches to be advocates for mental health. We need athletes, of any level, to be proud to share their story and to get the support they need. We may not be there yet, but your mental health still matters. The mental health of elite athletes matters.
One of the nation’s most acclaimed ADHD experts, double-board certified Child, Adolescent, Adult and Sports Psychiatrist, Dr. Dawn Kamilah Brown, is an internationally recognized two-time #1 best-selling author, Content Creator, and Keynote/Corporate Speaker. She is also the Founder and CEO of Mental Healthletics™ a concierge practice and serves as the company’s Sports Psychiatrist for elite (and retired) athletes of college and national sports organizations. Dr. Dawn is also the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the ADHD Wellness Center and has two private practice locations in Texas, with a growing virtual presence. She serves as a contract psychiatrist for 5 clinics; supervises 5 nurses in 2 states; and is licensed in 6 states.