Reaching out for help when facing mental health challenges can be hard for an athlete to wrap their mind around. Even if you know help is what you need the thought of reaching out can create the a lot of fear. The fear of being seen as mentally weak. The fear of letting teammates down. The fear of judgement from a coach.
Many athletes have anxiety around the thoughts of losing playing time and opportunities. Losing the acceptance of teammates. Or simply being seen as different.
Creating an environment where athletes feel supported to speak about mental health can truly change lives.
The question is how is this environment established?
A coach sets the tone for a team. They are the first ones that must take the responsibility to establish an open environment and culture of acceptance. Developing an environment of excellence where winning is important is not mutually exclusive from nurturing a culture where an athlete feels valued as a person and not just an athlete.
Athletes need to know that their coaches care about them. Care about them as individuals and that they are do not simply view them as a means to an end.
Athletes Connected is a program at the University of Michigan that provides mental health education and support for student-athletes. Emily Klueh, the Program Co-ordinator of Athletes Connected, as well as a clinical sports counselor says one of the biggest things they heard when starting the program was that athletes were reluctant to talk to their coaches.
“It is a perception more from the athlete and not necessarily the coach,” says Klueh. “Athletes often feel that if they open up then their playing time is in jeopardy as well as their scholarship or financial aid. That they will be looked at differently if they were to talk to their coach about something they are struggling with.”
When it comes to the topic of mental health coaches often feel ill equipped so they simply don’t address the subject. It is not a coach’s responsibility to be a counselor or therapist. It is their responsibility to create an environment where an athlete knows they can ask for help. A place where an athlete is confident the coach will listen in a non-judgemental way and help support them in finding the help they need
It is also helpful for coaches to understand signs and symptoms to enable them to approach an athlete they notice is struggling. This can has the potential of taking the concern away from the athlete in being fearful of asking for help.
There are many places that coaches can educate themselves on how to help athletes dealing with mental health challenges. Some of them include:
“One awesome thing about Eeyore is that even though he is basically clinically depressed, he still gets invited to participate in adventures and shenanigans with all of his friends. And they never expect him to pretend to feel happy, they just love him anyway, and they never leave him behind or ask him to change.” Anonymous.
Currently I give mental health awareness talks to schools and different organizations. When asked what people can do when they see someone they care about struggling I often share the wisdom contained in the quote above referencing the classic stories of Winnie the Pooh. Listen with an empathetic non-judgemental ear, provide support and let them know you care about them as the person they are.
“If someone struggling be there for them,” says Klueh. “I know that is one of the biggest things that Kally (the subject of one of the organization’s short videos) was talking about is that she wasn’t ready to get help once her friends started to notice that she needed help. But they remained there and visible to her and in her life. When she was ready and said I need help they supported her.”
“I think that being there, being open, being an ear for somebody to talk to or just being somebody present is vitally important. It shows that you are not only open to my struggles, but you care and you can help me get the help that I need. It creates that idea that I don’t have to tough it out. That I have people here who support me and want me to get better, want me to be the best I can be.”
Mental health awareness and education informs people that no one is immune to having emotional difficulties. Each one of us has to take responsibility for our own mental health. Everyone should work on creating a lifestyle that positively contribute to thier own mental wellness.
Klueh feels that one big thing for athletes is truly allowing themselves to take time to rest and restore, “I think a lot of it comes down to taking time for themselves. A lot of athletes do not allow this to happen. I know that I was the same way. Being pulled in many different directions and wanting to be involved in so many things can be overwhelming.”
“They are constantly living in a high stress situation where you want to perform both athletically and academically. They feel like the competition is so high between classmates and teammates that they have to be doing something all the time to be successful. Athletes burn themselves out by doing that.”
“Giving yourself some time. I know that for me now watching Big Bang Theory or something for 30 minutes is helpful for me to unwind not really think about anything. For other people it may be meditation or yoga, simply something for themselves.”
“Giving that permission is really important. You don’t have to be go, go, go all the time because you are going to wear yourself out. Eventually something will start to give. Being exhausted all the time can be difficult to be successful in all areas of your life. ”
When it comes to your physical health you can eat well, get an appropriate amount of sleep and exercise, but still get sick. When it comes to your mental health you can follow a wellness plan and still have mental health challenges, but being proactive can make a huge difference.
Throughout my life I have been faced with the challenges that are part of having Bipolar II Disorder. Educating myself on the illness and being proactive in making positive lifestyle changes has made a world of difference when it comes to managing my symptoms.
As an athlete it was hard to ask for help, as a coach it became even harder. When I finally did I was supported by amazing friends and family in and out of the athletic world.
Developing an environment and culture where both athletes and coaches feel open to talk about mental health is worth every ounce of effort that it takes to create.
For more information on this subject check out the rest of the articles in our Mental Health for Athletes series.