Student-athletes are immensely privileged—they have access to cutting-edge training equipment and techniques, advanced sports medicine, tutors, and alumni networks. But while the ‘student’ and the ‘athlete’ are accounted for, the person can often be forgotten.
The Journal spoke with current and former male and female student-athletes across several varsity sports and clubs about the intersection between their athletics and their mental health. According to those students, there’s a common misconception that student-athletes have it so good in so many respects that they can’t suffer from mental illness. They say that’s not how mental illness works.
The student-athletes interviewed—whose identities have been protected so they can speak freely—shared stories about the startling extent to which they felt affected by the stigma around mental health.
“I am f—cking struggling. I need resources right now.”
That was Guy*, a former male varsity athlete. He had reached out to his coach to ask him for help: a psychologist, or anybody who could provide assistance. His coach nodded through his request, and never followed up.
“I’m not saying this for an excuse. I’m not looking for pity, I’m not looking for sympathy, I don’t want your attention, I want help.”
“I think the coaches have to be the ones who set the tone for how we treat mental health in the future,” Guy said. “And a lot of it also comes from vets. As a rookie, there’s no way a rookie is coming out and saying that he’s depressed […] He’s a rookie, he’s scared shitless.”
According to student-athletes interviewed by The Journal, some Queen’s teams harbour poor attitudes about mental health—they related stories about being afraid of falling down the depth chart or being ostracized for revealing their mental health struggles.
As a result, athletes aren’t likely to make admissions about the true state of their mental health.
The importance of improving the culture around mental health in athletics lies in how closely mental health and athletics are linked.
“I had really gone out of my way to speak with some of the vets and explain that I [was] having a tough time,” Guy said, “and it was held against me in the following years. It almost became this punchline for a joke more than anything else.”
“I have a personality where I can laugh things off, but at the end of the day, I didn’t reach out to [them] because I’m attention-seeking. I’m desperately reaching out. This is my team. [They’re] the only people I really have in my life.”
Student-athletes spend most of their days with their team. According to Carl*, the experience of struggling with his mental health while not feeling comfortable talking about it with his team was isolating.
Carl is a male athlete who retired from his sport last year. He had an excellent junior career, and through his freshman year, he excelled with a reduced course load.
In his second year, with a heavier school schedule, the wheels fell off.
He stopped going to class almost entirely. “Suddenly, it’s almost time for exams and you realize you’ve barely been to campus once all semester,” Carl said. He spent days in bed. He missed midterms.
“Both of my roommates are on [my former] team […] I didn’t want to talk to them about my problems because I was struggling to balance [sports] and school, and they both do a great job of it,” he said. “It was easier to keep it all to myself.”
It wasn’t laziness—Carl was truly burnt out, and at times it was all he could do to bring himself to make it to his sporting commitments.
Carl had fallen behind in school, then he got incredibly anxious about the missed work, self-medicated, got further behind, and found himself unable to see out of a hole that had only been getting deeper by the day.
“It’s easy to self-medicate when you come to Queen’s. All of a sudden, you’re in an environment where it’s socially acceptable to drink every day of the week. It’s easy to hide your struggles that way, nobody’s really going to question you on that because it’s Queen’s.”
He left his sport, and he’s doing well, focusing on his academics. But his story is emblematic of how precarious mental health can be, and how easily it can go into a tailspin.
Student-athletes reported that Queen’s addresses some mental health determinants very well.
Academically and medically, Queen’s athletes are conscientiously provided for, and these are areas that, if under served, can seriously disrupt mental health.
Drew*, a male club athlete, got his second serious concussion last season. A symptom of being concussed can be severe depression. Lethargy became the norm for Drew throughout his recovery, and it sapped the happiness out of his life.
“What I really appreciated about the way that Queen’s supports its athletes is that I had this excellent resource in the sports medicine clinic. They’re just experts there, including Ryan Bennett,” Drew said.
Drew applauded how the medical staff carefully monitored both his mental and physical health.
When the doctors cleared him to play, his team was in the playoffs. He wanted desperately to get back into the game, but his better judgement held him back. He still wasn’t feeling 100 per cent.
He spoke with his coaches, and they completely backed his decision. He explained to his teammates, and they were sympathetic.
Judy*, a female club athlete, experienced the same thing.
When she was experiencing episodes of anxiety or depression, she asked her coach for some time off to recover.
“He said, ‘Okay, I know that you know what’s best for you and I care about you a lot and I need to make sure that you’re doing okay.’ That was amazingly helpful for me,” said Judy.
She was also able to lean on her teammates when things weren’t going well. She said they were dealing with mental health issues as well, and sharing their experiences amongst themselves was very helpful.
“You’re able to build such a strong community within your team […] I would say it’s a huge plus to be on a team at Queen’s.”
Certain teams on campus have developed an open and accepting culture around mental health and the overall health of players like Judy and Drew have benefitted as a result.
Some of the student-athletes interviewed by The Journal for this article were stars and captains of their teams athletes on big scholarships. Others had quit prominent team roles because of their struggles with mental health.
And although these interviews represent some of the most serious situations, student-athletes said that these experiences are also not completely uncommon.
“If you look at Athletics in general, there are so many athletes that struggle with mental health, it’s ridiculous,” said Guy.
In an email statement to The Journal, Leslie Dal Cin, executive director of Athletics and Recreation, wrote that the program is “committed” to, among other things, “educating our student-athletes on mental health awareness and the range of support resources that are available on our campus to promote and support mental health.”
However, students report that these sentiments aren’t always adopted by coaches. A student-athlete interviewed for this article reported nearly being cut after asking for time away from his team following the death of a close friend.
Student-athletes mentioned a number of ways that mental health culture on their teams could be improved—a redoubling of efforts by A&R to communicate the mental health resources available was requested, as well as reducing the barriers to accessing them.
Most of the athletes interviewed didn’t know what resources they had at their disposal, or how they could access them. Several of them mentioned vaguely remembering a brief presentation at the beginning of the year.
“Maybe [the coaches] should all have to do mandatory mental health training,” said Mark*, a male varsity athlete. “It’s a thing for teachers, and that’s what coaches are.”
“If [a positive emphasis on mental health] was happening on other teams, if there were full coaching staffs constantly talking about this stuff, or even just periodically speaking about this stuff, I’d be f—cking [envious].”
In an environment that can encourage silence, student-athletes say it’s crucial to saturate them with the information that allows them to get help for their mental health. According to student-athletes interviewed by The Journal, the stigma around accessing resources is a barrier—and normalizing it would help student-athletes help themselves.
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