The Hidden Injury
Student journalist Adriana Barich reports on how mental illness is increasingly ending collegiate athletic careers — an issue the National Collegiate Athletic Association has only recently begun to address.
RENO, Nev — Amy Belle*, a student at a large west coast university, had it all going into her first year of college.
A perfect GPA out of high school, a bubbly personality and a spot on her school’s division I track and cross country team could almost guarantee an enjoyable college experience — and that’s just what Belle expected.
However, in October of her freshman year, a picturesque experience became out of reach for Belle.
She started having doubts about her coach who could be moody and unpredictable on some days. Things became even more contentious when he told her to lose weight to increase her performance, and that the team would be better off without her. In hindsight, these comments were meant to toughen her up, but in reality all they did were break her.
A Sense of Betrayal
Despite thoughts of quitting, Belle still stuck with the team and tried to keep an open mind. In mid-February, the beginning of her first collegiate track season, she began to form deeper friendships with her teammates outside of running. It was through these friendships that she became more comfortable talking about her hesitations with the coach which in return made her feel better. However, Belle did not realize that some teammates had their own agendas, and they began to pass the conversations on to the coach.
Consequently, Belle was left feeling uncomfortable around the person who controlled her lifestyle and betrayed by the people she was supposed to lean on for support. This, combined with the stresses of practice, school and competition, was beginning to become too much to handle.
“I just desperately wanted someone to talk to,” Belle said. “I was surrounded by people all day every day, but at the same time I felt so alone.”
Belle lived with three other girls who were also on the team and loved every second of it. Their lives revolved around their passion for running, and Belle felt guilty for not feeling the same. Not wanting to seem like an outsider, she shoved her feelings down, not allowing herself to share what she was experiencing with anyone. How could she talk to anyone outside the world of student-athletes? She was receiving a scholarship to participate in the sport she had excelled in her whole life. For her to be anything but overjoyed would make them think she was ungrateful.
By late March, the once outgoing Belle was now reserved. She was sleeping almost 15 hours a day and began to binge eat. By the time summer rolled around, Belle had nearly isolated herself. Everyone chalked her behavior up to the normal stresses of college, but no one even stopped to ask if she was okay.
The peak of her struggle occurred a week before cross country’s mandatory report date, right before the fall semester of her sophomore year. Belle was dreading going back to the lifestyle that caused her so much anguish, and she feared the one thing that used to be her safe haven: her sport. She spent her nights binge eating and her days starving herself, resenting the 15 pounds she had gained on her formerly thin frame. She knew it would be a topic of conversation when her coach saw her again after three months, but eating was the only thing that put her at ease.
In a final moment of desperation, Belle was looking for an indisputable reason for her to not run anymore. The night before report date, when she knew all of her roommates were asleep, she snuck out to the kitchen to grab a hammer out of the toolbox. Retreating back to her room, she sat with her back pressed against the door.
Through tears and gasps of breath, she repeatedly struck her ankles with the hammer, and when the pain became too much to bear, she put the hammer down and looked at what she had done. While the force was not enough to break the bones, she was left with bruises and swelling that kept her from standing up. It was in this moment that she realized it was time to get help.
The next morning, Belle went into her coach’s office and confronted him about what she had been dealing with.
“I think it was a shock to everyone,” Belle said. “I had put up a front for so long that when I finally admitted that I was struggling to my coach, he was really caught off guard. He was very sympathetic, but I think this was the last thing anyone expected.”
She was allowed to take time off to see a doctor where she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. After six months of counseling, medication and periodic breaks from her sport, it was clear that things would never be the same. At the end of her sophomore season of cross country, Belle quit the team.
The life of a collegiate student-athlete is scheduled down to the minute with practice, competition and class, but this leaves little time for self care. The reason it took Belle so long to recognize that something was wrong is because she did not have time to stop and ask herself if anything was.
“I pushed through the motions of school and my sport, and it is because I did not stop to question if what I was feeling was wrong that my issues escalated to the level they did,” Belle said.
Statistics on Depressed Student Athletes
Belle is not alone in her struggle. According to a 2014 study by the NCAA, 30 percent of about 200,000 student-athletes reported feeling depressed and 50 percent claimed to have experienced overwhelming anxiety.
The reason why these numbers are so high is because the life of a collegiate athlete primes students for mental illness.
This is due to the time demands that prevent athletes from pursuing hobbies or other interests; they make their lives solely athletics. The 20-Hour Rule, or the limitation of athletic related activities in any NCAA sport to 20 hours a week, was put in place to ensure that “student-athletes are afforded quality time for academic pursuits similar to the general student body,” according to the NCAA.
However, only select athletic activities are counted in the total hours. Training room time, travel to practice/competition and volunteer hours are just a few of the things that cannot be counted, and these can easily add 10–20 extra hours a week on top of practice, competition, and weight training.
A study conducted in 2015 by Penn Schoen Berland assessed time demands among 409 Pac-12 student-athletes from nine different universities, excluding Utah, USC and Arizona. The study found that athletes are spending 50 hours a week on athletics during the season. Student-athletes report spending an average of 21 hours per week on required athletic activities, and an additional 29 hours on other “voluntary” activities that they feel obligated to attend.
More than 54 percent of the students say they do not have enough time to study for tests, and 66 percent said that their commitments prevent them from participating in on-campus extracurricular activities. In addition, 71 percent reported that their athletic commitments prevent them from obtaining adequate sleep.
By making these individual’s lives revolve around sports, it makes it that more detrimental when something bad happens and they don’t have anything to fall back on. In addition, all of these activities can wear an athlete out, depriving them of sleep and proper nutrition that contribute to an overall well-being.
Strides in Addressing Mental Health Issues
Furthermore, the NCAA has made recent strides in the field of mental health, but they are relatively behind on properly addressing it simply because the issue is out of sight. Unfortunately, in this case, that does not mean the issue is out of mind.
The NCAA website lists best practices for dealing with mental health, but ultimately leaves it up to individual universities to interpret how they handle specific cases.
“There’s really no way for the NCAA to come to every university and look at the policies to see what they are or are not doing, so it ultimately lies on the institution,” Meghan McGarty, an athletic trainer at the University of Nevada, said.
Moreover, mental health takes a back seat to performance. In practice you are taught to push through blood, sweat and tears, but how do you recognize the equivalent limits for your mind?
The answer is that athletes learn to push through the pain. They wait to mention small injuries until they turn into chronic issues, and you can imagine that the same happens with mental injuries, but at a more extreme level.
“I had teammates who wouldn’t miss a practice if they had a torn muscle, so how could I tell my coach that I couldn’t make it because I was having panic attacks all day?” Belle said. “I was scared of seeming weak, and in athletics, being weak is far worse than being in pain.”
The most dangerous stigma about mental health is that it is not worth taking time off for. For athletes this is heightened, for they are already weary of anything that could threaten their performance.
“Athletes are treated like machines,” Belle said. “ If they break down, there will be someone lined up to replace them. If they take time to rehabilitate their mind or their body, it is likely that they will be outperformed.”
With mental illnesses being already difficult to treat, it becomes more challenging the longer the problem goes ignored. Because there is no one size fits all solution for mental illness, athletes are prone to quitting their sports.
“Athletes with mental health illnesses are much more likely to quit their sport than those with a physical injury” said Dr. Arthur Islas, head team physician at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Everyone’s mental illness is different, and it is much harder and it takes much longer to treat a mentally ill patient than someone who is physical ill.”
Overall, while recent progress has been made in the field of mental health awareness, there is still a ways to go.
A New Chapter
Belle has now found a way to overcome her mental illness, but she still reminisces on her time as a collegiate athlete.
“Aside from the time I spent struggling with mental health, being a student-athlete was truly rewarding” Belle said. “The bonds I had with my teammates, the discipline I learned in training, the appreciation I had for what I was physically capable of — it was incredible and unlike anything I will probably experience ever again.”
However, it is hard to reverse the damage once it has already been done.
“I wish [the mental health policies] would have been more proactive,” Belle said. “If someone just pulled me aside and said to me ‘hey is everything ok?’ Maybe some of this could have been prevented. I would do anything to go back and compete, but my love for the sport will never be the same.”
*Note: Name of athlete changed to protect privacy