Mental health, stress are issues for college athletes, too

mental health
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You’d be surprised at how many student-athletes seek out mental health counseling.

“You can see something like the first panic attack happen, or there’s just so much that it gets overwhelming, and they can’t get out of bed, or there’s the daily struggle. And through conversations, they realize, Wow, I’ve been struggling with this for years. And by the way, now that I think about it, my mom probably has a lot of these tendencies, and my siblings do, too,” said Dr. Siobhan Statuta, a sports medicine primary care specialist at UVA Health and associate professor at the UVA School of Medicine.

The pressures on athletes has come into wider public view with the recent issues experienced by elite gymnast Simone Biles at the Summer Olympics. Biles, a gold medal favorite, nearly wiped out on a vault, then withdrew from the all-around competition, citing mental stress, before returning to win a bronze in the balance beam.

That episode followed the decision by top women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka to withdraw from the French Open earlier this year, citing concerns over her mental health and stress.

The pressures on athletes are manifold.

“From a young age, this is what this individual has chosen to do, for summer camps, weekends, night after night,” Statuta said. “They’re not only paying for school, but they’re playing for clubs and their travel. So much time and money gets invested in this through all those teenage adolescent developmental years. That’s where they’re excelling on that field, and it gives them that adrenaline rush, and by the way, they’re really good at it.

“Not only are they expected to perform, many of them come from small towns, where they’re the kid that that’s going to the University of Virginia. And then, think about college. That’s where you’re making your friends, potentially meeting your future spouse, you’re held to high academic levels, and on top of that, you’re expected to excel, so they are absolutely put under this pressure.”

The push at UVA is to encourage student-athletes to seek help if they feel like they need it, and to look out for their fellow student-athletes.

“It’s important to have this conversation, being aware of it, and if you do see somebody struggling, not being afraid to say hey, you know what, is everything OK? You don’t need to share everything with me, but just know, if you ever do need somebody to talk to, I’m available, or I can help get help. I don’t think that was around with my parents’ generation. Mental health was a taboo topic,” Statuta said.

As open as the world seems to be, relative to previous generations, it’s still a tough topic for some, particularly in the athletics world.

“These are people who have always thought that they have to be perfect on the field, in their personal lives, in every single aspect, and to admit that there are struggles inside internally, it’s a vulnerable feeling to reveal that, to acknowledge that, and then to seek help,” Statuta said. “I think having these discussions, exactly like what Michael Phelps says, just constantly bring it up, this is normal, this is part of our health. Health includes physical health, it includes mental health. There should be no hesitation to get help for either. You would not hesitate to see a doctor for a broken ankle, for example. You know, if you’re struggling with other aspects of your life, get help.”

Story by Chris Graham

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