Athletes compete against mental health stigma

KATE SNOWDON / AGGIE FILE

Student-athlete run group works to combat mental health stigmas in athletics, provide safe space for athletes

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and many organizations on campus have made their voices heard about the issue of the stigmas surrounding mental health –– including the athletics department. Student-athletes have come together to provide a safe place for the players of UC Davis sports teams to come to where they can experience the highs and lows of an athlete’s life with a supportive, like-minded community.

On top of keeping players in physically good shape, playing sports has an array of benefits –– especially for the mental and emotional health of athletes. Psychologically speaking, any form of exercise releases chemicals called endorphins into the brain. These endorphins are known for being the substances related to feelings of happiness and relaxation.

The continued, constant release of endorphins has also been tied to aiding athletes in sleeping better, reducing stress and helping to prevent the development of depression. Continually keeping the body active also keeps many mental skills sharp, such as concentration abilities and critical thinking, which can help athletes battle different disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to all of these medical pros, sports is also a means of socialization for many athletes and allows them to meet regularly with other people to form a team bond and long-lasting friendships. Participating and contributing to this team effort has also been shown to be beneficial in boosting players’ confidences and self esteems.

Solie Laughlin, a third-year psychology major on the swim and dive team, shared some of the biggest mental benefits she sees in playing sports.

“Being able to get a workout in and forget about the normal day stressors or pressure from school really helps relieve stress and get yourself calmed and ready to tackle the assignments assigned,” Laughlin said. “Also, working out releases dopamine, leaving you with a happier feeling overall. The adrenaline from performing in practice and workouts gets your blood pumping and gets energy flowing throughout your body.”

While there is a whole laundry list of benefits to playing sports, being an athlete can come with its fair share of drawbacks as well. For student-athletes especially, there can be immense pressure to perform successfully during sporting events while balancing a full class schedule and other activities. This pressure can lead to feelings of depression and can take a toll on an athlete’s overall well-being and self esteem.

As with any physical activity, there’s also always a chance for injury, which can be extremely difficult for student-athletes to mentally cope with. On top of being in physical pain and having to adjust life around an injury, those that are injured can experience emotional trauma from not being able to compete with their teammates and contribute to the team’s efforts. Because of the general age range of student-athletes, this group is more at risk for these hard times to lead them to turn to substance-related disorders and various eating disorders.

Laughlin’s teammate, third-year history major Nina Gonzalez, commented on one of the main mental drawbacks she struggles with as a female athlete.

“Being a Division I athlete requires 20 hours a week of in-season work, which can be very stressful when also balancing a full course load,” Gonzalez said. “For me personally, a drawback to being a female athlete — and especially one who wears a swimsuit every day — is unrealistic body standards propagated by the media as to what a female athlete should look like. I know many female athletes struggle with body image issues.”

With these struggles that student-athletes go through in mind, four UC Davis student-athletes decided it was time to take matters into their own hands this year. The students formed Athlete Guidance and Support, an organization run solely by student-athletes to promote mental health awareness and support in the athletic community. The group’s Instagram page describes its own mission statement: “Our goal is to guide UC Davis athletes towards healthy strategies to deal with stress, anxiety, or other negative feelings that are caused by the pressures of being student-athletes.”  

The football team’s senior running back, Ethan Hicks, was one of the founders of the group, alongside three other student-athletes. He shared how the four of them got the idea to form AGS on UC Davis’ campus.

“We were sent down to a conference in San Diego, where schools from all over the country came together to create an action plan to fight the stigma against mental health amongst student-athletes for their respective schools,” Hicks said. “We heard from several schools […] about how they created a program recently to help support student-athletes and mental wellness. Our goal was to learn from this conference, and take a plan back to UC Davis, which is how Athlete Guidance and Support came to be.”

Hicks also mentioned the group’s aspiration to be a safe space for athletes.

“Typically with Division I student-athletes, there is a belief that you always have to have your ‘game face’ on, and that struggling mentally leads to vulnerability and failure,” Hicks said. “Our goal with AGS is to let athletes know that it is okay to be vulnerable, and hopefully this improves the overall environment regarding mental health in athletics.”

Third-year track and field athlete Sydney Holmes, another one of AGS’s co-founders, also commented on some of the drawbacks student-athletes face and how AGS works to combat that.  

“Most athletes dedicate countless hours to practicing, travelling and competing, which can sometimes lead to minimal time studying and involvement in the rest of campus,” Holmes said. “While we love our sport […], it can also add a tremendous amount of stress as well. One of AGS’s goals is to pinpoint some common stressors among athletes and work together to reduce or alleviate them.”

Gonzalez, an ambassador for AGS, mentioned how she felt the positive impact of AGS during the group’s very first event.

“I got to speak along with another student-athletes, we had lots of food and sweets, and then we all watched ‘Inside Out’ on the football field,” Gonzalez said. “We received so much positive feedback afterword that I was drawn to tears. I’m a transfer student, and we had nothing like this at my previous university. If we did, it probably would have been very helpful to me. But I’m happy to be able to make a difference here and now.”

Student-athletes and all students interested in mental health issues are encouraged by AGS to attend events and get involved as they strive to support athletes and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health in athletic departments.

 

 

Written by: Kennedy Walker — sports@theaggie.org