Being a Student-Athlete and Living with Mental Illness

I know plenty of people have written about this topic but each post I read helped me feel a little more normal so I thought I’d jot down some thoughts and try to explain what makes it difficult to be a college athlete and struggle with mental illness. There is so much I could talk about and it’s hard to condense my feelings and thoughts into a short blog post but I’ve chosen to focus not so much on my specific struggles (if you want to talk about that feel free to message me and we can chat) but on how as student-athletes we can work on changing the way we view mental health.

Since I was in middle school I struggled with depression, self-harm and an eating disorder. Add that into a crippling desire to be the “perfect” student and it was a recipe for disaster. I never told anyone because I felt absolutely crazy. I felt like no one would believe me and even if they did I’m not a doctor, who am I to say I suffer with all these things? I felt invalidated and insecure in who I was and what I was struggling with. I had a great life and I’m not so consumed with myself to think other people don’t have much worse circumstances to overcome, but that’s the problem with mental illness, it eats away at all your logical thinking and makes you drown into your irrational thoughts and feelings.  In a way, going to college and getting away from all the memories of the pain I had gone through and afflicted on myself was the best thing I could have done. But it left the scars that were in this little town open, so whenever I come back for breaks the pain is still here, haunting me.

The reason why a lot of people don’t speak out is because no one wants to be that person. Hell, I know I don’t or at least I didn’t (I’m working on this new thing of not caring about what other people think). The first time I talked about everything I had gone through to a therapist at Oregon State was the first time I didn’t feel out of my mind. It was also the first time I didn’t feel like a coward. I saw a girl at our volleyball camp last summer who had scars all the way up her arms and I wanted to pull her aside and tell her it would all be okay but I didn’t. I had a perfect opportunity to be the person I needed when I was her age and I was a coward. I think that’s why I’m writing this now, I don’t want to be a coward anymore. Someone that’s too afraid of her own feelings to help others. Being a student-athlete is amazing. You have little kids that run up to you after games exclaiming that you’re their hero, professors always want to talk about your games, parents brag about you to their old friends and the more that happens the less you become a real person with real feelings and turn into an image. That image can be damaging because you represent your school and you don’t want to let the people who have supported you all these years down. I can only speak for myself but being a student-athlete doesn’t always give you the best reputation, people love you but people also love to find reasons to pick apart what you’re doing. To a lot of people, student-athletes are seen as spoiled, so god forbid student-athletes have something else to complain about.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my school and if anything I think playing a college sport has helped me handle my triggers and open up more but there’s also the fear of people around campus suddenly thinking they know everything about me because they know certain parts of my life. In the student -athlete community, everyone finds out everything. It doesn’t matter how but everyone will eventually find out very personal things about  you and that’s a little terrifying. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to ask for help, in any case. I’m headstrong and I’ve never shown any of my friends how I am when I start to feel the depression weighing on me. The idea that people I see every day, lift with and have classes with will see this post kind of scares the shit out of me. But I’m trying to realize that the reason mental illness is still so taboo is because of people like me that are scared to talk about it, people who are cowards.

So here I am; not being a coward and completely & totally jumping out of my very comfortable shell and telling people it’s okay to not be okay, even if other people like parents, coaches or friends have other expectations of you. Ask for help, talk about your problems, don’t struggle in silence. I felt alone and I still do sometimes but something kind of funny and heartbreaking happened when I met with that therapist for the first time. I was filling out paperwork in the waiting room, trying to hide the form that asked me questions like “On a scale of 1-5 how much have you thought about hurting yourself within the last two weeks?” and as I looked around to see if anyone was looking at me there were three other student-athletes filling out the exact same form. You are not alone. Don’t wait until it gets worse to ask for help, reach out to someone that makes you feel safe. I am so sick of feeling alone and helpless. Mental illness is not something you should be ashamed of but breaking down that stigma starts with us, the student-athletes. We can change the culture and make it easier for our friends and teammates to get the help that they need. xx

Counseling services at OSU:

http://counseling.oregonstate.edu/

National Suicide Prevention Hotline:

1-800-273-8255

Locked In

“I thought how unpleasant it was to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”

That is a quote from Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own. I however did not find it there, I read it from a suicide letter written by Madison Holleran, a student and track runner from University of Pennsylvania who jumped to her death January 17th, 2014.

I found the article on Facebook, one of my friends shared the article titled Mental health issues a huge challenge for NCAA in regard to student-athletes. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the article because I found myself relating to Madison more than I thought possible. I felt for her and all the other athletes or just students that suffer every day with mental disorders like depression, anorexia, bulimia, and so many more. Students and student-athletes are expected to amaze in college. You are expected to go to class, eat 3 meals a day, be engaged in all your courses, go to practice, meet people, pass all your tests, and still have a social life. I have never met anyone at my school that has succeeded in all of that, because it’s impossible. Taking more responsibility on as you go through school, totally understandable. But forcing yourself to be the best at everything is just unrealistic. You are setting yourself up for failure.

I am incredibly lucky to have a great coaching staff and friends around me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have struggles. It’s hard to do well in class, while working out and practicing everyday, it’s really hard. Then, lets add-on the fact that with working out comes weight gain. I don’t know about anyone else but as much as I enjoy volleyball and my team, sometimes the hardest thing for me to do is bite the bullet and step on that fucking scale. It’s scary. I haven’t self-harmed in years and it’s hard, I can’t imagine how people who are actively struggling with eating disorders can handle that.

Sidenote: I am so over people saying “wow you don’t look like you would/did/can have an eating disorder/be depressed”

OK. So why don’t you explain to me what eating disorders and depression look like since you clearly have WAY more experience with it than me. If a friend ever confides in you, do not, I repeat do not say that.

But back to what I was saying about Madison. There is so much pressure put on students, and even more so on athletes. Once you start college you have to make a few very important decisions and it roughly comes down to this, what do you want? Do you want to make a lot of friends? Do you want to get good grades? Do you want to sleep for 8 hours every night (good luck)? Do you want to stay sane? You can’t have everything and I think it is extremely hard to figure out what you want/need in your life.

I’m not perfect, and I’m taking things one step at a time. Some days it’s hard to stay sane when I’m feeling like I physically and mentally cannot keep up with everything that is going on, but I have to believe I can. Even if that means I have to step away from things that I love to give myself space to breath, I’ll do it. The idea that student-athletes have to be at their best every single day is not only unfair, but hurtful to their mental stability. I like volleyball, I like school, and I like having my friends, but I will always choose my health over any of those things.

If you’re feeling “locked in”, talk to someone. I wish I would have in high school, I wish I would have asked for help directly. It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re fine and that what you’re feeling isn’t a big deal. But your feelings are always valid, don’t let anyone, whether it be coaches, parents, friends or teachers tell you that what you’re feeling isn’t important, because it is. You are incredibly important and your feelings matter. Don’t try to shove them aside, because shoving the problems aside doesn’t make you stronger. All it does is slowly break you down. Being broken isn’t pretty or romantic, it’s terrible and dangerous. You don’t have to be locked in anymore.

Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if my life was cut short like Madison’s. I don’t know what my family would be like with me gone, or my friends, or even people who I rarely spoke to. But with all the confidence in the world I can say Madison’s death affected people all over. I never knew her, but in a crazy way I feel like I did. I hope that wherever she is, she is happy and no longer feels locked in.

Suicide Prevention Hotline– 1 (800) 273-8255