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Athlete Mental Health: Breaking Barriers and Fostering Well-being in the Sporting Community

Mental health support is becoming more widely accepted in our society, thanks to changing attitudes, heightened awareness, and reduced stigma surrounding mental health problems. Nevertheless, athletes remain a distinct subgroup who face specific challenges related to receiving mental health help.

We have all watched athletes get injured and carried out of a game or competition; think Buster Posey’s 2011 season-ending collision at home plate, fracturing his tibia and causing ligimant damage, or Briana Scurry, a U.S Women’s Soccer Goalkeeper whose career ended in 2010 when she collided with an opposing team member whose knee slammed into her temple causing a traumatic brain injury. Physical injuries are seen as a testament to an athlete’s dedication to the sport. The crowd falls silent, then erupts in cheers when the player gets up or is assisted off for help. In contrast, mental health issues are often met with fan outrage, team and coach disappointment, or loss of sponsorships/ scholarships, and this is devastating for the athlete.

Athletes, similar to the general population, grapple with a variety of mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and overwhelming stress. However, their experiences are intensified due to the constant scrutiny they face. Athletes are under daily observation from coaches, teammates, and even their own critical self-assessments. Daily stressors are compounded by the demands of their sport, and the pressure intensifies during high-stakes competitions, where underperformance can have significant consequences.

The transient nature of competitive sports exacerbates these challenges. Athletes often struggle with irregular sleep patterns and do not always have access to healthy food. Even if they seek mental health support, consistent treatment becomes complicated when they travel out of state, creating ethical dilemmas for therapists who are bound by state licensure regulations.

The support networks surrounding athletes, including family, friends, coaches, and teachers, often find it challenging to recognize the early signs of mental distress. Athletes might exhibit symptoms such as stress, anxiety, mood swings, impaired judgement, or fatigue. Student athletes might resort to substance use, skip classes, or isolate themselves. Identifying these signs is complicated because they can align with typical aspects of child development up to around age 26. Consequently, determining when an athlete or their loved ones should seek help becomes a crucial question.

While the symptoms above can be typical within the arc of brain and hormone development, they can also be signs of anxiety, depression, concussion or brain injury. Many sports have some level of physical contact with others, and individual sports usually involve risk of falling or hitting against something. The human body is quite resilient, but we are now learning that consistent sub-concussive hits to the head build on one another and can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is a fatal disease of the brain. Between the pressure of being an athlete and the physical toll the sport and training take on the brain and body, it is imperative that a mental health professional is part of the athlete’s support team.  

While the present scenario might appear grim, the outlook for athlete mental health is growing increasingly optimistic. Encouraging open dialogues enables athletes to feel supported, fostering an environment where they are encouraged to seek help when necessary.

Innovative approaches like Brainspotting are emerging and are used to address sports-related trauma and aid in injury recovery within the neurological system. Brainspotting encourages neurogenesis, or the growth of nervous system tissue in the brain, which is helpful in recovery from concussion or subconcussive brain trauma. It aims to reduce athletic errors and muscle guarding so the athlete can perform based on their ability and trained skill.  It also boosts resilience and a state of mental flow, enabling peak performance.

Brainspotting is not a talk-based therapy, it uses eye positioning to access the deep brain.  This is highly attractive to many of my athletic clients who do not feel comfortable talking about their feelings or traumatic experiences. Because of the way this treatment is conducted, it can be very appealing to people who are resistant to traditional forms of counseling.  

Breaking the stigma surrounding athlete mental health is crucial for the overall well-being of athletes. Mental well-being is not just a response to crises but a proactive approach to enhancing performance. As sports organizations, athletes, and their support networks continue to adopt holistic approaches to athlete development, the future holds promise for athletes’ mental health, ensuring they excel in their respective sports and lead fulfilling lives beyond their sporting careers.

Bree Sutton M.A., LMHC

Bree Sutton, a Licensed Mental Health Therapist and Mindset Coach, leads a thriving private practice located in Spokane, WA, serving all of Washington state. Bree specializes in empowering and guiding healing for athletes and high-achievers, using cutting edge neuroscience techniques like Brainspotting and biofeedback as her primary modalities. She is not only an expert in her field but also a dedicated advocate for mental health awareness, actively serving on the Washington State Mental Health Association board and Chairing the Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion committee. Bree’s passion lies in fostering mental well-being and enabling peak performance among her clients. To learn more please contact her at [email protected], 509-818-6819.  You can find Bree on Instagram at HelloBree.Co  

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