Professional athletes have been the topic of everyday conversations about mental health during the past year, especially after high-profile Olympians Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles upended the world’s long-held notion of athletic grit by taking respective mental health time-outs amid competition.  

Amplified through social media, their actions sparked heated debate over whether the traditional mindset of “powering through” adversity can still be considered a healthy coping strategy on any level.

In response, several Albizu University professors and professional sports psychologist Orlando Castro, LMHC, himself an Albizu graduate and Licensed Mental Health Counselor, convened last month for a virtual discussion about “winning at all costs” and what lessons the world of professional sports can teach everyone else about how to best address important mental health issues.  

Albizu University is known worldwide for its superior graduate psychology programs.

Moderated by Albizu Assistant Professor Dr. Scott Bauer, Psy.D., M.Sc.PP., M.S., L.M.H.C., who also serves as Practicum II Supervisor for Albizu’s Master’s in Psychology Programs, the panel also included:

  • Dr. Isaac Tourgeman, Ph.D., M.S. ClinPharm, Faculty Member and Professor-Doctoral Program Psychology at Albizu University
  • Dr. Jessica Popham, Ph.D., LMFT, Faculty and Practicum Coordinator for Albizu Master’s in Psychology Programs
  • Yamila Lezcano, LMHC, Assistant Professor for Albizu’s Undergraduate Psychology and Education Programs

The panel’s discussion centered on the importance of prioritizing mental and physical health, and the stigma that persists around admitting exhaustion. 

“One in five Americans will experience a diagnosable mental health disorder in their lifetimes, making mental health issues a more common problem than either heart disease or cancer,” Professor Lezcano explained.

Making matters worse, athletes often miss childhood developmental milestones that can add to their risk of developing mental health issues in later life. Those who participate in more individualized sports may experience added pressure.

“Part of the issue is that mental health carries a stigma of weakness—the total opposite of what an athlete wants to portray,” Dr. Bauer noted.  “Plus, some professional athletes may have big sponsor endorsements to fulfill, along with having to live up to being idolized by their fans, all of which adds to the pressure.”

Professor Lezcano explained that high performance athletes often endure “psychological pain,” which she defined as mental suffering yielding a profoundly unpleasant feeling.  

Constant demands for performance at peak level can leave athletes in a persistent state of heightened awareness that can cause the body to break down from adrenal fatigue, noted Dr. Tourgeman, who is also a neuropsychologist. When the adrenal glands begin to lose their efficiency, it can result in depression and persistent anxiety that can even hamper the healing of physical injuries, he explained.

Because the body is like an engine, he said, there is a direct correlation of mental health and physical health.  If it is constantly running on “high octane” produced by a high cortisol fight or flight response it will eventually burn out.  

Athletes who suffer a “silent injury” such as concussion will often keep symptoms to themselves so as not to be perceived as weak, Dr. Tourgeman added. Sometimes, the athlete may not even be aware he or she has sustained an injury and is manifesting mental health symptoms as a direct result. 

Whether it’s an athlete or an everyday person who’s suffering from a mental health issue, sharing one’s struggles always makes it easier to cope, Dr. Popham said.  

“In the case of athletes, when someone shares, they have more control over the information than if the information is shared without their consent, such as on social media.  But athletes no longer have feel ashamed or hide those parts of themselves, especially since it can foster positive conversations and actually show people how to access mental health services.”

Conversely for anyone, keeping troublesome feelings inside can be harmful, since it can result in anger, anxiety or disenfranchisement from an individual’s support system and sometimes even lead to substance abuse to alleviate the psychological pain, Castro explained.

So how can the average person know when it’s time for mental health self-care?  The panelists agreed that establishing one’s own personal boundaries is key, but also a trial-and-error process until a balance is found with which to deal with stress.   

Also realizing that stress can be reframed as a good thing is another way to cope, Dr. Tourgeman explained, since stress is our body’s way of signaling that something going on inside needs attention.

“During this past year, we’ve all had to get creative in how we deal with stress,” Dr. Bauer concluded.  “It’s about time that we acknowledge that ignoring our mental health needs can lead to real and lasting negative consequences. When did it become okay to be stressed until we break?” 

To watch a replay of the discussion, click here.