Mardy Fish, an American tennis player once stated, “It’s OK not to be OK. To show weakness, we’re told in sports, is to deserve shame. But showing weakness, addressing your mental health, is strength.” With the Olympics quickly approaching this summer, I wanted to discuss an important topic which is the mental health needs of athletes. So many athletes, even though they love what they do, deal with many different mental health struggles. Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. Research also shows us that student athletes are less likely to reach out for help when they are dealing with mental health concerns.
There are a variety of different reasons why many athletes have mental health struggles. One contributor is that it can be difficult to balance all of the different things in their life: practice, family, other relationships, and possibly even school and/or work. There is also an immense pressure that athletes face to perform well in whatever game they are playing and in their public life as well. The constant need to do their best can be damaging to their mental health. If they are a student athlete, they also have the additional stress to perform well in school and get good grades.
Another large reason so many athletes struggle is because of the stigma still associated with mental health. Luckily, we are seeing this stigma decrease, especially in the world of athletics, as more and more athletes are raising awareness. But stigma is still there, especially when athletes are told their whole lives and/or careers they need to be strong and not give up. We know, as the quote mentioned above says, that when anyone addresses their own mental health, that is real strength. In the world we live in currently, it takes bravery to openly discuss your mental health.
My hope is that someday, both athletes and nonathletes will be able to talk about their own mental health just as easily as they do their own physical health. That it would not have to be an act of bravery to simply talk about how they are feeling and what they are going through. The main way we, as a society, are going to end the stigma is by having real and honest conversations.
For all the athletes out there, please know you are not alone. We know and understand that you have so many pressures you deal with daily. Please take care of yourself, and do not feel guilty for doing so. There are individuals that care about you and want to see you doing your best. There are also resources available if you are struggling. Ultimately, never forget that your life is so valuable, both with and without sports.
Katie Zimmerman, Project Coordinator for The Kim Foundation
Katie Zimmerman joined The Kim Foundation in June 2019. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies and Sociology from Central College in Pella, Iowa. During her time in college, she volunteered at many non-profit organizations and took multiple sociology classes which focused on mental health. Katie’s role at The Kim Foundation includes running the social media accounts, assisting in the Youth Advisory Council, and providing mental health awareness and education to the community through A Voice for Hope and Healing presentations.