Editor’s Note : This article contains language and scenarios related to suicide and other mental health issues that may be triggering.
In an upcoming episode you are going to be introduced to Hayley Perelman, who is a year 4 Clinical Psychology Ph.d student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Hayley and I were classmates back at Boston University during graduate school and we shared a common bond with our prior collegiate athletic career. She swam at The University of Vermont. Her current research focuses on body dissatisfaction and disordered eating amongst athletes. I don’t want to spoil the episode because it is so insightful and informative but I do want to get this broader conversation on mental health started. It needed to be started a long time ago.
The recent news of Tyler Hilinski, the Washington State Quarterback completing suicide (died by suicide or completed suicide is the appropriate phrasing. “Committed” further stigmatizes and draws parallels to suicide and criminality) and Olympian Michael Phelps speaking out on his battle with depression frame our conversation and place it on a spectrum from both college athletics to the most decorated Olympian of all time. Being somewhat of an insider in both fields here, mental health and athletics, I find myself better understanding one, the incalculable benefits of getting yourself help but also two, why we as athletes don’t do that and why those that lead us haven’t showed us it the same way as say, the athletic training room where we spent a majority of our days.
For one there is a basic lack of education around the issue. I’ll explain it the same way I do to kids. When you’re younger and you saw a friend with a highlighter green cast in school you immediately offered to carry their books. There was essentially a cast signing campaign that ran rampant throughout the school building. Teachers softened their approaches, accommodated expectations and excused work. Kids that weren’t even this kids friend wanted in on the sympathy parade. Maybe your whole class spent a day writing this person get well cards during their time out of school. It is very easy for us to feel for someone when we can see they are physically hurt, injured or in pain. We go to great lengths to provide as much support as possible.
A mental health issue differs in that one cannot quite see the issue. There is no cast or set of crutches for depression or anxiety. And so as the saying goes, “I’ll believe it when I see it”, well, in some cases no one ever really sees it until it’s maybe too late. As athletes, pushing through pain, discomfort and adversity is pretty much second nature. In a culture of “just toughen up”, where weakness, mental or physical is chalked up to an excuse; we regularly are taught and conditioned to bypass our mental health needs to satisfy more external factors - coaches, parents, performances etc. This especially happens after we leave the care of our parents and pressures continue to surmount. As a college athlete, the demands in our life are greatly magnified. Anyone who has played at a high level can attest to this. Our grades, our performances, our starting position, the search for a quick breath of normalcy, our scholarship money, our chances at the next level, the list can continue but for the purpose of the reader i’ll stop it there. In this phase of our life it is not uncommon to feel like it is all too hard to balance or manage. It would be a great time to be introduced to the health services staff of clinicians or maybe a psychologist that specifically works with student-athletes. I can’t speak for all schools but I can say confidently I don’t think this is happening as much as it should. I urge schools to utilize their resources for this. It is a must, our student athletes are suffering for it. And if you needed more convincing it will better everyone’s performance on the field and in the classroom, which should be where your needs lie as a coach or school official if just overall student well-being wasn't good enough.
Mental health is a prerequisite for all other performances. I don’t even mean mental skills related to the sport, like imagery or goal setting or relaxation which also should be worked on as regularly as we work on our physical skills but that’s almost a whole additional conversation. I more so mean clinically, the conditions of our lives at this point are hard. The statistics on this are even wildly skewed because so many athletes would be a afraid to come forward for it. But too many are suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse issues and more. Some of us can find our way out of that and either get ourselves help or grab on to every ounce of self-induced will and come out alive; others cannot.
Crisis Text Line: text BUDDY to 741-741 (for free 24/7 support)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Trevor Project (for LGBTQ+ youth): 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
Depression Hotline: 1-630-482-9696
Sexuality Support: 1-800-246-7743
Eating Disorders Hotline: 1-847-831-3438
Rape and Sexual Assault: 1-800-656-4673
Grief Support: 1-650-321-5272
After Abortion Hotline/Pro-Voice: 1-866-4394253
Self Harm: 1-800-366-8288
Pregnancy Hotline: 1-800-467-8466
National Association for Children of Alcoholics:1-888-554-2627
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
National Drug Abuse Hotline: 1-800-662-4357
Postpartum Depression: 1-800-PPD-MOMS
Chalk Talk is a weekly What's Next column by Anthony Cinelli, one of our founders. It will be published every Monday morning. Anthony is currently a mental health counselor and baseball coach in New Jersey.