By Conor Orr
For coaches at every level, tackling the stigma around mental health conditions has become just as important as calling the right plays.
Over the last few years, brave athletes, from high school to the professional leagues, have been sharing their stories about depression, anxiety and related mental health concerns that can be exacerbated by a competitive environment. In response, many teams have taken concrete steps to help athletes meet their mental health needs.
Here in our area, for example, the New York Giants have their own staff sports psychologist named Lani Lawrence, who is not only available for private counseling sessions, but is present at daily practices and meetings in an effort to make players feel more comfortable. Giants players have told reporters that Lawrence can better help them deal with the intense anxiety of a high-pressure game, or the low feelings that can accompany an untimely injury.
At Rutgers University, the Scarlet Knights have a full spectrum of available services for athletes, including a counseling center, a behavioral health center, and direct assistance for any athletes dealing with issues related to violence or abuse.
All the way down to the high school level, there are coaches like Billy Kvalheim, the defensive coordinator at Secaucus High School, who is also the founder of a nonprofit called Tackle Depression. Based on his own experiences dealing with depressive symptoms, Kvalheim created an organization meant to provide “knowledge, insight and coping skills” for anyone dealing with mental illness.
Environments where athletes feel like they are measured by wins and losses can be fertile ground for feelings of depression or anxiety. Whether it be a fear of an upcoming game, a fear of failure or the disappointment that comes from not performing up to a personal standard, those in competitive sports have a lot of complex emotions to sort through. Some experts have said that, while participating in athletics can lead to a higher baseline of mental health, it can also lead to steeper highs and lows.
Especially in the sporting space, traits like toughness are prioritized. The idea of sweeping feelings under the rug often became synonymous with being tough, when in reality, ignoring depression, anxiety and other stigmatized feelings usually only makes dealing with them harder.
Talk to many athletes, and they’ll relay a similar story: before the likes of stars like olympian Michael Phelps, whose very public experience with depression led to the creation of various documentaries, apps and other targeted campaigns aimed at erasing the stigma of mental health disorders, they felt as though they needed to keep their feelings bottled up. Over time, there became a pronounced strength in sharing stories and being open.
With so many people at every level of the game huddling up and sharing their experiences, the hope is that a new generation of athletes can enjoy sports and other activities as they are meant to be experienced: as a source of joy, teamwork and togetherness. Thanks to everyone who has shared their experiences, to help break the stigma of behavioral health issues and set a playbook for a positive future.