• A well-balanced state of mind is extremely important for athletes who seek to achieve high performance and development.
  • Athletes experience additional risk factors that may exacerbate the onset of mental health disorders when compared with everyone else.
  • When athletes are treated for physical injuries, doctors may focus on remediating the physical symptoms but sometimes miss the mind-body dualism.

The sports world was astonished in early June 2021 when Naomi Osaka, a four-time champion and second-ranked female tennis player in the world, withdrew from the Roland-Garros French tennis competition after revealing her mental health challenges with depression. Amidst all the media controversy and pressure, coupled with being fined under the tournament’s code of conduct, Osaka stood firm in her decision to prioritize her mental health. To the world, her courage represents a small dent in the barriers surrounding mental health stigma.

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Mental health challenges, as with physical health challenges, affect everyone. In fact, mental health problems are more common than heart disease, lung disease, and cancer combined. Sadly, mental health-related symptoms and disorders are very often underdiagnosed, undermanaged, and, even worse, ignored. A well-balanced state of mind is extremely important for athletes who seek to achieve high performance and development. However, the other side of the coin shows athletes (defined as those who undergo high-intensity training, difficult competitions, having to relocate far away from family and friends or main support system, and an overall stressful lifestyle) experience additional risk factors that may exacerbate the onset of mental health disorders when compared with everyone else. Compounding the aforementioned risk factors are mental disorders in young adults and adolescents ages 16-34 that are between 25 to 26 percent higher compared to other age groups.

It is also important to consider a young person’s developmental stages, inasmuch as adolescence can be a time when stress could add to the vulnerability of mental health challenges. When a young athlete’s environment changes as a result of transitioning to a “big league” or more competitive level, such changes could be turbulent for them and may be difficult for the family and coaches to identify if there is a mental health challenge versus the normal mood swings of adolescence.

Some of the changes that adolescents experience may be hormonally driven. Youth, especially girls, become more prone to depression and anxiety as “raging hormones” may cause an extreme emotional response and more vulnerability to stressors such as family conflict, peer pressure, and in the case of athletes, more pressure to perform at higher competitive levels.

Additionally, some athletes start training at a very young age, often missing normal life activities like socializing with friends outside the sports environment and, in some cases, the school environment as they practice for extended hours. Many of these athletes are also homeschooled. Such experiences add to risk factors associated with mental health challenges as they experience stress and pressure to perform at highly competitive levels at very young ages.article continues after advertisement

Elite athletes like Osaka who practice individual sports (e.g., tennis, golf, boxing, etc.) experience an even higher level of stress as they perceive that all the pressure falls on them and may not have the opportunity to count on the collective effort and support from team members.

High-performance athletes portray a culture of extreme focus on fitness and physical appearance to the general public. However, research shows that many often suffer from mental health disorders with similar or higher percentages to those of the general population. For example, the incidence of eating disorders and some substance use disorders in elite athletes surpass those in the general population.

Also, athletes who have dedicated many years of their lives to their sport may have suffered serious physical injuries that might negatively impact their careers. In turn, this can trigger depression and anxiety.

In these cases, the mind-body relationship is deeply intertwined but sadly often ignored. When athletes are treated for physical injuries, medical professionals may focus on remediating the physical symptoms, but miss the mind-body dualism as the athlete may endure psychological pain related to the recovery following an injury that might put them at risk of impairing their athletic performance. Similarly, symptoms of mental health-related disorders may setback an athlete’s recovery from an injury and ultimately affect their confidence to perform well.

The stigma surrounding mental health and lack of mental health literacy, along with negative previous experiences with mental health services, the fear of being judged as weak, or even the loss of sponsorships and money are some of the barriers that athletes find when seeking mental health treatment.

Coaches could play an important role in encouraging and providing support for athletes to seek mental health services when needed. Sports culture should try to further debunk the myths associated with mental health challenges in order to improve mental health literacy among athletes and coaches when assessing the athletes’ specific obstacles to seeking treatment for mental illnesses.

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