Thirty-three percent of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Of that group, 30 percent seek help. But among college athletes battling mental illness, this figure is only 10 percent.
Mounting pressures placed on collegiate athletes are not only extremely physically demanding, but also require excessive mental energy. Competitive academic environments like the Claremont Colleges expect athletes to maintain high academic achievement while physically excelling at their sport. Given this taxing atmosphere, athletes must be mentally prepared to thrive within and outside of competition.
Maintaining mental stability is just as critical as physical training for an athlete’s sport. When a physical injury prevents an athlete from competing, they are given time off to heal in order to extend their career and improve future performance. The same priority should be given to mental health. The 5Cs must focus on fostering a considerate environment that encourages athletes to treat mental illness as a physical injury.
If an individual’s identity and self-worth is based on their athletic performance, the pressure to perform becomes all-consuming. If these athletes do achieve something they perceive to be of value, the experience is no longer joyful and instead produces relief.
Being away from campus due to COVID-19 severed many athletes from this piece of their identity. Upon returning, many are struggling to find their place within and outside of their sport.
Unfortunately, the current resources available to student athletes fail to produce an atmosphere conducive to this internal struggle. The wait-time for Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services (MCAPS) as of Sept. 16 was just shy of four weeks, with the first available appointment being October 12. Ten-minute sessions available during drop-in hours do not provide nearly enough time to address concerns any individual may have.
Directly within the 5C athletic departments, there is a failure to adequately address mental health as a priority concern for players. At the Pomona-Pitzer fall sports Doc Talk, in which a registered physician was brought in to speak about remaining healthy while in-season, there was no mention of the dangers of poor mental health.
If the 5Cs were as committed to mental health screening and treatment for athletes as they are towards physical well-being, a healthy mind would be viewed with equal importance to a healthy body.
Socially, there is a long-standing culture that stigmatizes mental health. Recent backlash against professional athletes’ withdrawal from competition for mental health reasons, as in the cases of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, highlights the superhuman mentality that elite athletes cannot let themselves be vulnerable to mental illness. The emphasis on athletic achievement has shifted the perception that effort is what counts. There has developed a culture that dismisses the individual behind the sport, as though they are nothing without success.
The overwhelming message of the 2021 Olympic Games was that athletes are more than their sport: they are individuals who should be allowed to prioritize their mental wellbeing. A crucial way of breaking down the stigma for mental health is by making it visible in what is considered a major facet of American culture.
Sports have contributed greatly to American society as vehicles for transmitting values. They can therefore be a powerful tool to alter societal stigma against mental health. The Tokyo Olympics should serve as a turning point for representation of mental health in the country. As opposed to a weakness, athletes struggling with mental health should be seen the same as those facing a physical ailment.
Biles’ decision to withdraw from the gymnastics all-around final competition highlighted the strength of athletes who come forward and ask for help. She explained, “Put mental health first, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor you really are, rather than just battle through it.”
Osaka conveyed a similar message upon her exit from the 2021 French Open and Wimbledon. Her vulnerability about mental health sparked conversation about the importance of athlete’s taking time away from sports to focus on individual growth and improving their mental state.
In the end, mental health isn’t just as important as physical health. As Biles explained, “physical health is mental health.” It’s time for the 5Cs to promote this message.
By treating mental illness with as much gravity as a physical injury, athletes can set a goal to heal as they would in hopes of returning to competition following a physical issue. Athletes should not be rushed through mental recovery. If framed in the same way as a physical ailment, players can allot themselves grace to return when they feel ready.
Abby Loiselle PO ’23 is a cross-country runner for Pomona-Pitzer. She is hoping this piece inspires other athletes to let themselves be vulnerable about their mental health.