Tackling mental health

From long bus rides to early-morning practices and everything in between, a student athlete has a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it.

“There are nights when you get back from a travel game at one in the morning and you haven’t finished assignments that are due the next day,” said fourth-year student Matthew Poole, former Mounties soccer player.

You can’t do everything.  Izzy Francolini/Argosy
You can’t do everything. Izzy Francolini/Argosy

In between all the assignments and game scores, an athlete’s mental health is often ignored. Fourth-year swimmer Laurel White believes that although mental illness can show physical symptoms, they largely go unnoticed. As a result, athletes are pushed to perform despite issues they may have with their mental state. The idea that “it’s not a big deal [and] you can still swim the race” is prominent for many athletes, White said.

Issues of mental illness come in stark contrast to ideas of mental ‘toughness’ that are perpetuated through athletics. As former football player John Bulman said, “Coach always stressed the importance of mental toughness, being able to overcome and grow in flexibility to deal with situations that aren’t expected.”

For some, this idea of mental strength can stigmatize those facing problems with mental health. Athletes who speak out about any struggles they are going through could risk having their mental state and ability to perform questioned.

The expectation to exhibit mental toughness can take a toll. “It’s almost like you live two lives. You have the player and you have the player off the field,” said fourth-year football player Jesse Myers. “Even when you’re not mentally tough, you don’t show it.”

“I was one of few guys on the team who was open about [mental illness] when I played. I heard people call me crazy, refer to me as the odd guy out,” said Bulman.

In contrast to popular belief, mental illness and mental toughness are not mutually exclusive. “People need to realize that [having] depression, anxiety, PTSD or some other kind of mental disability is completely separate from being mentally tough. You can have three mental disabilities and be mentally tough on the soccer field and you can have none and not be mentally tough on the field,” Poole said.

Athletes are constantly striving for perfection and seeking the impossible. This need to be perfect comes at a cost. “Nothing is ever good enough,” Myers said. He added that this takes a toll on him, but “you kind of just brush it off.”

With high expectations both on the field and in the classroom, there is little time in athletes’ schedules to deal with mental illness. White has seen her peers struggle with such issues. “It gets to the point that it’s taking up so much headspace [that] you combust.”

White expressed frustration with the process that students go through to access professional counselling at Mt. A. “I don’t want to go through three people to talk about my problems – nobody listens and [everyone] just refers you to someone else,” White said.

This process is made even more difficult for students and athletes who have to match up limited availability for services at the wellness centre with an already busy schedule. “They are available if you go through that process, to get to that person. But sometimes people fade out [through that process],” White said.

On the topic of a possible solution, White discussed the opportunity for a service that is free of referrals and allows athletes to sign up for times that fit with their schedule. This system already exists, with much success, to provide physical support to athletes through physiotherapy. “I think it would be worth the cost,” she said.

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