March 21, 2022

Athletes more openly addressing mental health struggles

Sad or tired female football player in sports uniform sitting on green field on background of other team

Athletes at all levels – from middle school to professional – have historically been reluctant to discuss their struggles with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges.

After retiring in 2016, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps talked openly about his long-term battle with anxiety and depression, later adding that therapy ultimately saved his life.

“We’re supposed to be big, macho, physically strong human beings,” said Phelps, “but this is not a weakness. We are seeking and reaching out for help.”

Other elite athletes have joined Phelps, including NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, tennis phenoms Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles; and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who openly talked of his struggles following the April 2020 suicide of his older brother, Jace.

Thanks to this growing list of high-profile athletes willing to share their stories, the fear of social stigma and negative judgment from coaches, teammates or parents is slowly being supplanted by invitations for support and treatment.

UW Health sports medicine physicians and rehabilitation therapists welcome the change and the opportunity to help athletes find mental as well as physical well-being.

Treating anxiety can improve athletic performance

“When I see student-athletes in my practice, I encourage them to view mental health needs as they would physical health needs,” said Dr. David Bernhardt, a UW Health sports medicine physician. “Addressing either leads to better performance on the court or the field, and this message has been well received. Fortunately, patients in our system who express a high level of anxiety have access to a wide array of experts in psychology, psychiatry, nutrition, mindfulness and integrative health. Our Center for Wellness also is a great resource for everything from yoga classes to mind/body programs.”

Bernhardt’s sports medicine colleague, Dr. Kathleen Carr, said that rates of anxiety and depression among athletes mirror those of the general population.

“Athletes usually find their sport fulfilling for many reasons, including physical well-being and social camaraderie,” said Dr. Carr. “It’s also important to acknowledge the pressures they face. Time demands are a big issue, since there are only 24 hours in a day. Sleep deprivation not only affects mental well-being but also can make athletes more prone to injury.”

COVID-19 has been tough on everyone

COVID-19, of course, has taken a universal toll on everyone’s collective mental health. On the bright side, however, the pandemic has opened the floodgates for athletes to talk more openly about their emotions and seek help.

“There’s just a lot more stress in the world right now,” Bernhardt said. “Our colleague Dr. Tim McGuine led a study showing strong increases in anxiety and depression among adolescent athletes in the early weeks of the COVID shutdown. Having a significant piece of your identity suddenly taken away, this was not a surprise, especially for those high school seniors of 2020 who never got the chance to compete again.”

Dr. Claudia Reardon, a UW sports psychiatrist, says athletes are increasingly turning to mindfulness meditation, yoga and other non-medicinal techniques to help increase focus and calm the mind.

“These tools have been well-received, not only for dealing with anxiety and depression but also for helping recover from injuries,” said Reardon.

“Athletes deal with physical, mental and emotional issues constantly,” said UW Health physical therapist Melissa Fischer. “It’s great that we’re more willing than ever to address balancing the scales more between mental health and physical health.”