Battling with Mental Illnesses as a D1 Student-Athlete

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send them to [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Mariam Labib, a sophomore swimmer at UMass. 

Your alarm rings at 5:35 AM, and suddenly you feel your whole body tremble, awakened by your alarm. You feel your body sink into your bed as your mind tells you that you can’t get out of bed. Your body feels numb, and you feel weak, but you know you have a commitment; the sport you love. Even though it feels as if a monster is taking over your body, deep down inside, you are an athlete and you want to get better. You are destined for greatness, but it is hard to believe it in that very moment.

As you dive into the cold waters of your school’s pool, you swim through your fears and try not to believe in limitations. In my experience, my mental health instabilities used to let the monster in me take over my body during practice and in my races. I felt as if someone was swimming instead of me, and they weren’t doing a very good job at doing so.

Suffering with mental health instabilities by itself is a very hard roller coaster, whether athlete or not. If you are a Division 1 athlete, having a mental illness can be a very big barrier in performing to your best abilities but I am here writing to you that it will get better. There are so many ways you can get through your struggles, but you must be patient and persistent. As athletes, we were taught how to be persistent. If you fail in a race, or you lose your game, will you give up? If your answer was that you gave up, you are absolutely wrong because you would have not made it this far if you have. So use your athletic spirit to help you keep going. How else can you try to cope with a mental illness as a student-athlete? Here are a couple tips that helped me get through my days, my practices and my studies.

DEFINE YOUR WHY. When you feel like quitting, ask yourself why you started. Everyone has their “why”. Their purpose. My sister passed away when she was only 4 years old, and she is my why. She is my motivation and keeps me going every single day. When I want to quit, I think about her and remember why I am here. Why I am waking up at 5 in the morning. Why I travelled to another country to swim my sport in college. I worked for her, and I cannot quit. Think about your purpose, and let it strengthen you, let it motivate you.

USE YOUR PAIN AS FUEL. Having a mental illness is extremely hard, and I want to tell you I feel your pain. I’ve had knee injuries, and just as I took care of my knee, mental illnesses are injuries to the brain, and we need to take care of them. But how did I do so? I used my pain to motivate me and fuel me. I would go to practice and tell my coach today I won’t be able to make it through a practice, and I need to go home. He let me do so, because just like missing practice for an injury, you can miss practice for your mental illness. However, when I returned to my room, I turned my negative energy and my pain into positive thoughts. I told myself “Why am I here when I can be at practice, working to be great, working to my goals.” And I would walk back to the pool, get back in the water and have the greatest practice of my life.

OWN YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS – SEEK FOR HELP. Never be ashamed of a mental illness. I was in denial that I was mentally ill, and even spent a whole day at the hospital getting blood work to give me a reason as to why I was feeling sick, sad, etc. I recently let myself accept my mental illness and being open about it let people into my life that have helped me heal. I approached a therapist, a doctor, friends, coaches, and family. Having such a great support system lets you know you are not alone. And I know how scary it can be to feel alone. Take advantage of the resources on campus, the therapists on campus; they ARE here for you. You can also seek help to accommodate you in your studies, such as writing an exam in a separate classroom so a crowd won’t stress you out.

As someone who suffers with mental health illnesses, I know a lot of what was written is easier said than done, but if you start step by step, you will soon become consistent and start feeling like yourself again. Remember, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” You can do it. Never give up.

About Mariam Labib

Mariam Labib is a Canadian by birth, but is currently studying and swimming as a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts in the United States. As a freshman last season, she broke a school record and finished 9th in the 200 free (1:49.19) at the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship meet.

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Thank you for sharing what is such a tough topic for many. Education is vital so that those who suffer know they aren’t alone and know they can and should seek help. In cases where the person doesn’t feel able to reach out for help, education can hopefully help coaches, trainers and teammates realize when someone is suffering and they can intervene on the person’s behalf to get professional help to them. This article helps in that whole “education” process, especially since it comes from a current swimmer. You are a very brave and strong young woman and I appreciate you taking the time to write and post this article. Good luck with your school work and your swimming this… Read more »

Frequent flyer

This is great! It’s a relief to see things changing. My freshman year in college was 01. When I finally decided to go to psych services that year, I did not consider it a possibility to tell anyone, especially coaches or teammates. My first trip to the office on campus, I saw one of my freshman teammates already in the waiting room. She felt she could not tell anyone either, because of the stigma of being seen as a “mentally weak” athlete. But this gave us a connection to bond over during the toughest year of college for both of us. Glad things are continuing to evolve to make these experiences more accessible and acceptable for future student athletes.


This is a great article to read, as my daughter is signing her NLI today for D1 swim next year. She suffers from anxiety/ panic attacks and at times depression. She hasn’t let her . College coach know, as she is afraid she would be considered weak or damaged He could recruit plenty of mentally strong athletes, She will be many hours from home, and we both worry how she can handle this alone while in college. It’s good to know what is available on campus, that coaches are understanding and there to help athletes, and that she is not alone. Your article gave us hope, reassurance, and knowledge on the topic of mental health.

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