By Sydney McKenna ’21 (she/her)

Athletes are known for having an incredibly packed schedule: practice ranging from two to four hours a day, a full college course load, clubs and leadership opportunities outside of their sport, a part-time job, and a social life if they’re lucky. 

Imagine the image of a triangle with a sport in the main corner, while the other two corners represent other portions of an athlete’s life; for example, field hockey, social life/sleep, or school. The caption of the image asks you to pick only two of these. As athletes, we slowly allow our sleep and social life to slip through the cracks to be deemed successful. Now add maintaining one’s mental health or dealing with a mental health issue to your plate, and that’s another full-time job in itself. 

Mental health conditions include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and many more. When combining practice, games, lifts, and school, it is extremely difficult for collegiate athletes to find balance and thrive, especially while combating the stigma of being seen as “weak” or “not mentally tough” to colleagues and coaches. Though an astounding 33 percent of student-athletes across the country will experience psychological issues severe enough to warrant counseling, only 10 percent will seek help, compared to 30 percent of their non-athlete peers. At Davidson, I am part of the 10 percent. My story started as a sophomore athlete on the Davidson College Field Hockey team. I had never heard of many mental health resources for athletes here at Davidson; I was wandering lost and very aware of the severity of my anxiety and depression. Even though the field hockey team is centered around values of strength and family, I felt distant and alone while figuring out my mental health. I had never felt comfortable talking about my anxiety and depression to my closest teammates, for fear of not being supported, and I physically couldn’t bear the idea of having a diagnosed “mental illness” that I had to talk about with my coaches. I kept my story a secret for nearly two years, but now I am passionate about promoting student-athlete resources and normalizing conversations about mental health.

At Davidson, we are starting to see change; however, there are many obstacles that athletes run into. The Athletic Department added two new psychiatrists specifically for athletes. This is the first big step to acknowledging athletes’ mental health conditions and breaking the stigma. Though this progress is currently in the works, there are still many concerns about the well-being of Davidson’s student-athletes. 

I discussed mental health on Davidson campus with Rachel Hendricks ‘21, the Mental Health and Sexual Assault Prevention Chair for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and we considered what Athletics can do to improve the well-being of athletes. “Athletics, at the moment, must take a step back from a normal competition schedule to ensure the safety of the community,” Hendricks said. “We, as an athletic department and as a community, need to empower all student-athletes (and non-student-athletes) to get the support they deserve for their mental health by letting them know what resources are available to them.” Athletes want and need more support from coaches and staff, Hendricks mentioned, as many athletes feel unsupported by the environments coaches build around mental health. Coaches are often the front lines in fostering athletes’ good mental health. Therefore, coaches need to have an understanding of the resources available for athletes to reach their maximum potential in both sports and academics. 

Davidson needs to make mental health a priority. 

Though mental health is a severe and growing problem for student-athletes, many colleges don’t offer any support that compares to the extensive care given for physical injuries such as ACL tears, concussion, and broken bones. An injured athlete gets instant medical help, surgery if needed, and rehabilitation to return to the game as quickly as possible. Kristin Hoffner, a principal lecturer in kinesiology at Arizona State, elaborated further on the issue: 

“Mental health is basically ignored. There’s a stigma about mental health and seeking counseling, not just with athletes but with most people. It’s understanding mental health is important, letting athletes know it’s not weakness to seek help. It’s helping them realize it’s just like an injury that needs treatment.” 

As the Chief Medical Officer of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Brian Hainline declared mental health as the number one health and safety concern of the NCAA. Yet in student-athletes’ eyes, it is as though nothing has changed. Not only is this environment dominant in the college sports world, but also in the professional and Olympic athletic environments. As the world’s historically most decorated swimmer, Michael Phelps, released the “The Weight of Gold” documentary through HBO Max this year. His documentary sheds light on how prevalent suicide and mental health conditions are within athletes such as himself, Serena Williams, Shaun White, and more. The big question remains: why did it take some of the top athletes in the world years to share their story? 

We need a culture shift in sports. 

Coaches and teammates should try to recognize signs of a student-athlete experiencing mental health difficulties, such as the following side-effects

• Changes in sleep patterns (constantly tired) 

• Rapid weight gain or loss 

• Mood swings 

• Sudden under-performance 

• Decline in academic performance 

• Social isolation

• Lack of interest in sports activities once enjoyed 

• Long stretches of sadness or hopelessness 

When you or a teammate experience these side effects, it may feel like there is no hope or light at the end of the tunnel. But there is. It is so important that you reach out to a trusted friend, coach, or loved one if you have concerns for a teammate/friend. Student-athletes are leaders that can help bring about change around mental health. If coaches, athletes, non-athletes, teammates, and peers at Davidson can normalize mental health discourse, we can allow for a more open environment that promotes mental health rather than diminishing it.

Sydney McKenna ’21 is a Digital Studies Major from Louisville, Kentucky, and can be reached for comment at symckenna@davidson.edu.