In my sophomore year of high school, I took the teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) course as part of my gym class, and my number one takeaway is that mental health is just as important as physical health. This is especially true for student athletes like me, who often sacrifice their mental wellbeing for a sport.
tMHFA covers a broad range of mental health challenges, from eating disorders to depression. While the training applies to a wide audience, it is especially useful for members of athletic teams because they learn how to be better teammates and to look out for certain signs that could signify potential mental health challenges among peers. We also learn how to provide initial support and when to get the help of a parent or other trusted adult.
Prior to taking tMHFA, I ignored my mental health in pursuit of succeeding at basketball, soccer and lacrosse. I was afraid of being benched or yelled at. But sometimes, after long days of school and navigating issues with friends or family, playing sports feels like an impossible task. I’ve even found myself covering for other teammates who claimed they had a migraine or physical injury when really, they were too mentally drained to go to practice.
This is not new or unusual. Data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis, which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression or anxiety. Additionally, one study by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association found that many student athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than their non-student-athlete peers.
It is upsetting that as athletes, we must have a physical ailment to be excused from sports. When I sprained my ankle, I was able to — even expected to — sit out of games and practice, and no teammates or coaches ever judged me for taking a break. But disruptions in mental health, like physical health, can also make studying, working, playing on a team, living independently and maintaining a healthy lifestyle very difficult. It should be just as acceptable to take a step back from sports when dealing with mental health challenges, so we have the space to recover and come back as our best selves.
We must learn to talk about mental health more freely and treat it just like physical health. This can be achieved by bringing tMHFA to more schools to help build understanding around these challenges nationwide.
During the training, we learned many mental health challenges can lead to teens withdrawing from sports, social activities and even school, which can have a compounding, negative affect on their overall wellbeing. With tMHFA, we can learn to build healthier mindsets and habits that prevent us from burning out during our sports seasons — like many people I know have.
As a student athlete, I have never heard any coach or adult discuss mental health or available support for students who are experiencing a mental health challenge. tMHFA is the vital piece that student athletes are missing; it will help make their experience one to look back on fondly. We undoubtedly need it in all schools.
Although playing sports can be a healthy escape, it can also be demanding and overwhelming, with practice up to six days a week and the constant expectation to perform to the highest standards. It is only now, after participating in tMHFA, that I realize that prioritizing self-care is key to maintaining my overall wellbeing, and it is OK if I can’t give my all at practice 100% of the time, especially when I’m struggling with my mental health. tMHFA should be required learning for all student athletes — it got through to me and I know it could do the same for others.
Kuik, R. and Potts, S. (2022, May). Mental health and athletes. Athletes For Hope. https://www.athletesforhope.org/2019/05/mental-health-and-athletes/.
Neal, T., Diamond, A., Goldman, S., Liedtka, K., Mathis, K., Morse, E., Putukian, M., Quandt, E., Ritter, S., Sullivan, J., & Welzant, V. (2015, March). Interassociation recommendations for developing a plan to recognize and refer student-athletes with psychological concerns at the secondary school level: a consensus statement. Journal of Athletic Training. https://www.nata.org/sites/default/files/developing_a_plan_to_recognize_and_refer_ student_athletes_with_psychological_concerns_at_the_college_level.pdf.