Any time an athlete commits suicide is a tragedy. The sporting community is mourning the loss of four gifted athletes. Rick Rypien, 27, who recently signed with the Winnipeg Jets in the National Hockey League, is the most recent athlete to have committed suicide. Derek Boogaard, 28, another NHL player, Jeret ‘Speedy’ Peterson, 29, U.S. Olympic silver medalist freestyle skier and Dave Duerson, 50, former NFL player with the Chicago Bears, also committed suicide earlier this year.
Sports, athletes and mental health make unusual bed fellows. The typical athlete appears strong in body and mind. However like the general population, athletes experience depression, anxiety and mood disorders.
Because athletes are granted hero status, it is difficult to accept their personal struggles with issues affecting their mindset and stability. Some causes are sports-related such as repetitive blunt trauma to the head injuries leading to concussions. Whereas others are due to life circumstances or hereditary predisposition. Regardless of the circumstances, the sporting community does a disservice to athletes who take their life because they were unable to find relief from their symptoms.
By embracing a new attitude in sports, these deaths could have been avoided. Viewing depression and other mental health issues as a stigma is based upon ignorance. The stance can be turned around with education and support from the leagues, teams and the sporting industry.
- Mental illness does afflict athletes. They are not immune. Depression, anxiety and other disorders affect athletes at the same rate as the general population. Coaches are on the front line with their athletes. Minimizing the signs of depression and anxiety is not acceptable.
- Mental health issues are not a sign of weakness. Just like physical problems, mental health problems are manageable. An athlete with a broken leg would be required to see the team doctor. Then treat athletes suffering from depression or anxiety the same way. Require they see a trained professional for assistance as well.
- Remove the stigma. These athletes are not crazy. They are; however, reluctant to confide in their coach because of the possible consequences. Avoiding the issue only lengthens the amount of time the athlete suffers. Coaches who punish athletes for depression or anxiety are operating from ignorance. Taking away an athletes sport because of emotional health issues is a disservice to the athlete and the team. The sport might be the saving grace for that athlete.
- Inherent risk for athletes. Even the best athlete suffers from periods of anxiety or depression. Elite athletes are under a significantly high amount of stress. The constant pressure to perform can provoke these conditions. Head injuries, concussions and the resulting depression have been blamed for the high number of suicides among athletes. As a result these players suffer from lowered quality of life due to serious injuries sustained while competing.
When an athlete suddenly commits suicide, it gets attention from the media and the public. Suicide in and of itself is a tragedy. No one population is immune. Until depression and other emotional health issues are accepted, the stigma will continue to take it’s toll on our athletes.
Athletes, like warriors, are expected to be tough, resilient, durable and perfect. Perceiving anxiety, depression or uncontrolled rage as a weakness causes the afflicted athlete to deny their experience. Instead of seeking help they attempt to cover it up. No one wants to be stigmatized. When something extreme happens, such as abuse, addiction or suicide, everyone is surprised.
Slumps and chokes are some of the more common terms used for athletes anxious about being judged, performing under extreme pressure or fearful. Frequently mental health issues will be masked by bad behavior. Often alcohol, drugs, gambling, spousal abuse and anger are outward symptoms of the internal struggles.
Embrace a new motto, friends don’t let friends die. Now is the time to turn this around. Prevent another unnecessary suicide. Fellow athletes, coaches, and other support persons have a responsibility to learn the signs of a troubled athlete. Just like injured athletes are required to seek medical attention, the league can easily develop a system for making a referral to a trained professional for mental health assessments and treatment. It is a matter of responsibility to our athletes and our community at large.
Now is the time to eradicate the stigma attached to emotional health issues. With more and more teams using sports psychologists, access to professional help is easier than ever. Education is the key to reducing the suicide rate. Learn the signs and know what to do. It is that simple.
Activity: Get educated. Pay attention when talking with other athletes. No one is expecting you to fix their problems. They are, however, looking for validation of their experience. Don’t deny or minimize their reality. It is very real to that individual.
If you believe someone is experiencing depression and or suicidal thoughts ask if they have someone to speak to about those things. Encourage them to seek out a professional. They don’t need to suffer or deal with this on their own.
Do you know an athlete suffering from depression or anxiety? Left alone, quality of life becomes affected. With the right tools, and support, it is possible to turn it around. Performance is directly impacted by mood. Instead of feeling like you can’t change anything, learn about the resources available.