Sunday, August 28, 2016
Last updated: 11 months ago

Mental health among student-athletes: The battle off the playing field

Photo Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

Student-athletes can be at risk for depression. Photo illustration Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

With the second half of the varsity season underway, the stakes are high for UBC Thunderbird athletes. National championship berths and titles are on the line, and training and preparation is intensified, making each day more and more important. And as if they weren’t under enough pressure, student-athletes need to stay on top of their classes, too. What does this create in the life of an athlete? Stress.

A 2011 survey of 1,600 students at the University of Alberta showed that 51 per cent of students had felt that “things were hopeless” over the past 12 months, while seven per cent had “seriously considered committing suicide.” In addition to this, a survey conducted by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America has showed an increase in students seeking help for their disorders. Studies show that the average age of onset for mental health conditions like anxiety and depression is from 18 to 24 years old, the typical university age range in North America.

Student-athletes find themselves at an increased risk for these illnesses due to the combined pressure of their academic workload and athletic pursuits, and UBC is no exception. I discussed this with one of UBC’s top varsity athletes, who himself has successfully managed both anxiety and depression. (For personal reasons, the athlete preferred to remain anonymous.)

“Being a university athlete requires a high level of focus and effort,” he said. “You have to be able to balance all aspects of your life while at the same time competing at the highest level of sport and academics in Canada. There’s pressure to perform well in both school and your sport, while a student-athlete in many cases has little time for a social life. This only adds to their stress.”

In these periods of depression and anxiety, it was expected I strive to be my best despite feeling terrible.”

Symptoms of depression include emotional withdrawal from friends and favourite activities, moodiness, changes in appetite and weight, feelings of anxiety, sadness or anger, unwarranted guilt and shame and a decrease in sex drive. These symptoms were echoed by the athlete interviewed by The Ubyssey.

“I have had many episodes of clinical depression, as well as extended periods of high levels of anxiety that have impeded my progress and success in my sporting, academic and social lives,” he said. “In these periods of depression and anxiety, it was expected I strive to be my best despite feeling terrible. A combination of low-level energy, lack of focus, loss of interest in all aspects of my life and a feeling of self-doubt, despair and hopelessness pushed me to the edge, where I was not sure if I was going to get out or return the same.”

In the world of university athletics, student-athletes are expected to be both physically and mentally tough. These societal pressures make it difficult for athletes to admit they need help.

Fear of social stigma is the key reason many students do not seek medical help. According to a 2006 study, only 23 per cent of students are comfortable with a friend knowing they’re getting help for an emotional issue, making embarrassment the number one reason why a student won’t seek help, but getting past this fear of embarrassment and reaching out to friends and family can help a student emerge from the downward spiral of depression and anxiety.

“I have used many techniques to recover from illness. Hanging out with teammates, friends and family has been a great way to improve my symptoms, even if it was to just distract my mind from what I’m dealing with. I currently take antidepressant medication to help cope with stress and avoid the pitfalls of my illness. Exercise and my sport has been a great way to keep my emotional and physical health balanced.”

In addition to his support network of family and friends, the interviewee stressed the importance of counselling and alternative techniques to manage symptoms.

“Counselling has proven to be a valuable tool in my recovery and continues to be today. I’ve also found that a healthy, natural diet has proven to be great too. The last tool I have used has been meditation. Meditation is an unbelievable way to find emotional and mental balance. It increases my focus and ability to cope with the stress.”

Cheryl Washburn, director of Counselling Services at UBC, said that UBC does not have specialized services designed for student-athletes, but did say that Counselling Services provides help to all students, free of charge. The Counselling Services office is open Monday through Friday in Brock Hall. Students can choose between individual counselling and group counselling programs to help manage stress, anxiety, depression and more.

The university experience is intended to be challenging, but not hopeless or threatening. A student-athlete or student may think they are alone with their mental health issues, but there are countless others who struggle with the same problems every day. It is crucial to seek help immediately, reach out to your support network of family and friends, and use the student services at UBC.

“My advice to those suffering or a future sufferer is to always keep in mind that things will be OK,” said the T-Bird. “Even if it takes a few years to reach a sense of normalcy, you will get there. The human spirit is amazingly resilient. You may not think you can get through what you are experiencing, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and when your body and mind are pushed to the limit, your spirit will show how strong you can truly be.”

  • Davis Wuolle

    UBC Athletics is great at a lot of things, but they do not currently provide sports psychology services to athletes. It’s not much use being at the top of your game physically if you aren’t there mentally.