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Diagnosed: Human In The Helmet Pt. 1

Megan Nielsen
For athletes like Marlene Aniambossou, anxiety and emotional distress are common challenges. Though we may only see what happens on the court, many athletes have mental struggles that make it more difficult to handle life as a student athlete.

According the NCAA, 30% of student athletes in collegiate-level sports self-report that they have felt unmanageably overwhelmed during their sport’s season. About a quarter of them self-reported that they felt exhausted from the mental demands of their sport.

Student athletes across the nation are struggling to balance student life and social life and their sports but not all of them feel comfortable asking for help or even reporting what they are feeling or dealing with because of a stigma that is connected to mental illness.

Dr. Darren Campbell, with Intermountain Sports Medicine, says this stigma has changed the way we read reports of mental health issues because of the low chances of someone actually reporting. And even when the stigma decreases, the more people are willing to talk about their mental health is likely to change how many cases are reported, though that may not directly show an increase in mental illness overall.

This stigma has held many back from getting the help they need.

“I guess I was embarrassed… maybe I should have reached out,” said Kavin Keyes, a high school baseball prodigy.

He played third base and my brother played shortstop. My brother and most of the state of Utah that was paying attention to high school baseball at the time idolized Kavin. At the plate and on the field, we knew Kavin would make the play, get the hit, win the game. He surprised no one when he left high school early to play for Oregon State University, but he was surprised by the mental challenge that he encountered when he got there.

“I couldn’t even throw a baseball anymore," he said. "You know the anxiety just took over, there were times in college I was sitting at third base and I was just begging for the ball to not be hit to me.

“In high school it wasn’t like that," he continues. "When I got up to Oregon, you know, failure wasn’t an option. The strive for perfection was hard. Think about in high school it wasn't like that... I don't know what happened... It definitely overtook me and took me right out of baseball for sure.”

Perhaps, if there wasn’t such a stigma around mental health, Kavin may have stayed with the sport he loved.

In dealing with the stigma, Dr. Campbell says there’s something we can do if we notice someone struggling, maybe in the same way Kavin did.

“If we see someone struggling with their moods, and it could be a history of anxiety and depression, it could be a friend who is listening to some of their challenges and they’re getting worried about that individual and we ask about what is going on with that and find out if they can deal with it, then we can approach it and treat it,” Dr. Campbell said. 

Emma Dudley played that role in her friend’s life. She was 14 at the time, and taking on her friend's challenges led to a personal discovery.

“My best friend, he told me he was going to kill himself, and he told me that if I told anyone he would for sure do it," she said. "I just remember feeling like I had someone’s life in my hands… from there on out I just felt like I needed to do more and have control over my life.”

That was Emma’s “trigger moment”, when anxiety began to take over. It was most obvious when she played sports, especially when she didn’t play well on the basketball court. If she would turn over the ball, battling feelings of guilt, embarrassment and even emotional distress became more difficult than meeting the physical demands of team competition.  

Talking to her mother and focusing on her faith helped Emma. They were tools she used to deal with the effects of anxiety - symptoms like lack of concentration. By learning to cope, Emma excelled in her sport and now plays for the Utah State Women’s basketball team.

Emma left her mom in San Diego to play basketball for the USU women’s team. Now, she talks with her coach, Cori Smith, who also happens to have a masters degree in counseling psychology.

“It doesn’t need to be as heavy of a word that just makes it scary and untouchable to say, ‘Oh I do think I’m anxious and might need some help,'” said Coach Smith.

She says helping her student athletes feel comfortable enough to talk to her or other trusted sources is key to helping them perform well as athletes and as individuals.  

“In order for them to feel okay talking about it, it’s got to be de-stigmatized and we need to realize that we all face this. Maybe it’s just for a season of your life, maybe someone does need medication, maybe someone does need therapy.”

For Marlene Aniambossou, a teammate of Emma’s, she had a unique challenge as an international student. She needed help dealing with the change and she found help in Cori Smith and in Emma.

“She would take me aside before every game and say, 'Hey, relax, you can do this, I believe in you'… that really helped,” Marlene said.

But she is like Kavin in the fact that she doesn’t actively reach out for help. She was raised to, as she says, deal with her own problems.

So she, and so many athletes like her, go on playing their sports, exhausting themselves from the demands of the game and their emotional illness. Spectators can see none of it, sports networks see none of it. Because overcoming a mental barrier is not a stat that you see on a box score.

About 20-25% of young adults struggle with a mental disorder of some type. Those numbers don’t dramatically change with student athletes but the stressors that could trigger such disorders are increased in the lives of student athletes. Juggling social, academic and athletic life adds pressure and for a lot of athletes, it’s not a matter of if they will become overwhelmed by it but a matter of when.

Unless they feel comfortable talking about this important issue, they probably won’t get help.

That’s where friends, family and classmates come in.

“I think as a society we need to break down this stigma or preconceived notions about what it means to have anxiety or depression or those symptoms of that," said Dr. Campbell. "So we need to get rid of the negative ideas about what it means to have those things. Those are disease processes that need to be treated just like we would a cold.”

Support for Diagnosed has been provided in part by our members and Intermountain Healthcare, a Utah-based not-for-profit system of 23 hospitals, 170 clinics, a Medical Group with close to 2,300 employed physicians and advanced practice clinicians, a health plans group under the name SelectHealth, and other medical services. Details found here.