Column: An inside look at high-Functioning mental illness in athletes
The athlete’s experience with mental illness is a difficult to pin down due to an athlete’s high-functioning nature.
In fact, the criteria for the majority of mental illnesses are based upon how severely it affects day to day activities. For an athlete, the sport becomes so ingrained in one’s character that the day-to-day aspect can often be disregarded, leaving them with functioning neurotypical behavior.
While the presence of mental illness is less prevalent in athletes than in the general population, they are still susceptible to disorders. In fact, the majority of athletes with mood-disorders are often under-diagnosed due to the narrow lens of treatment.
Mental illness screenings consist of questions such as the following: Are you feeling unmotivated? Are you having difficulty completing day-to-day activities? Do you feel sad or anxious the majority of the time? Are you fatigued?
This list is not comprehensive enough for diagnosing mood-disorders in the general population and is laughable at it’s incompetence towards diagnosing athletes with mental disorders. As a former and highly competitive gymnast, I experienced under-diagnosis and inadequate care as well as a plethora of umbrella terminologies to explain my moods.
Athletes with mental illnesses present symptoms in a variety of ways that align with the symptoms of common mood disorders.
The difference is the nomenclature. Fatigue was just over-training. Anxiety was just performance based. Panic attacks were the fear of disappointment from peers and authority. Depression was lack of social interactions. Suicidal ideation was fear of not living up to expectations.
They were right about some of the factors in my mental illness, but the sport did not define them. My mental illness was merely compounded by the sport. The misconception in mental illnesses and athletes are dangerous, and gymnastics is known for the brutality on the mind and body. Emotional abuse is a leading factor in athletes with C-PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), and various anxiety disorders.
According to the Brunel Centre for Sport, Health and Wellbeing, “In elite sport ‘suffering’ is not uncommon and hence sometimes child abuse is sometimes unrecognised, de-emphasised [sic] or easily dismissed as part of a collective experience that is perceived to be necessary to ‘create’ elite athletes.”
Trauma was just as much of a part of training as was stretching, conditioning, and practice. This is what made an athlete. This won medals, this made you disciplined and respectful, this paid for college.
This also keeps you awake years after leaving facilities and the sport entirely. This also keeps you from drinking certain sports drinks, this also makes you dissociate at a raise in tone. This made you an athlete, and this unmade you.
In competitive athletes, self-worth is often dependent on performance. The frailty of the balance between consistency and off days leads to the frailty in the perception of self. This also corresponds to the vulnerability athletes possess with their coaches. Self-worth is also maintained by feedback from authority figures in the athlete’s life. The perceived inability to satisfy their peers or coaches can lead to the development of neurodivergent tendencies.
OCD is a recognizable disorder, however, it can be unrecognizable or dismissed in athletes. Observe the pre-batting routines of baseball players that some consider merely a superstition or quirk. Some players tap their bat against the ground a specific number of times, roll the tip in the dirt, and mark their feet in the dirt a specific way in order to feel comfortable or lucky. In athletes, it is difficult to gauge the levels of compulsion due to the presence of ritual and culture.
In gymnastics culture, especially at the elite and collegiate track levels, which I as well as many of my peers participated in, it is a common training technique to break down the athlete. This facilitates growth mentally and physically. Hence, the emotional and subtle, yet occasionally explicit, manipulation seen in the power dynamic between the coach and athlete.
According to the Brunel Centre for Sport, Health and Wellbeing, in the same study, “children who participate in elite sport are rarely seen as vulnerable, and are certainly not considered to be ‘at risk’; this assumption should be challenged.” This is in reference to emotional abuse regarding sport culture.
Athletes deserve better mental healthcare. Maintaining a facade of functionality means absolutely nothing when the sport becomes so inherently tied to the athlete’s character. In my case, the sport was as vital as breathing.
Professionals, parents, and coaches are in a position to observe the athlete’s mental state. It isn’t enough to narrow mental illness down to a bullet point list. Mental illness is complex and needs to be treated as such, especially in outliers such as athletes.
Because of the association athletes have with exercise, it is hard to conceptualize a life with depression or anxiety for them, but the dangers are ever present. Recognition of sport culture, power dynamics, and complex behaviors can ensure a more healthy lifestyle.
Passion and trauma do not have to be so intrinsically tied when it comes to elite athlete character. Create the distinction by being cognizant of sport culture, whether it be for yourself or for those you know.