Mental Health and Athletes: What You Need to Know

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Olympic athletes train to be the best in the world at their respective sports. They are determined, talented, capable, and display a level of grit and determination qualifying them for the highest stage of competition. They spend years working toward a few simple ultimate goals: giving their best performance, honoring their country and leaving the court, mat, field or track with a medal in their hand.

When gymnast Simone Biles recently withdrew from the Olympic Games, it came to many as a surprise. What may have come as even more of a surprise to some is the reason she withdrew: her mental health.

This latest example of the courage of an athlete to stand up and let the world know that mental health is health has brought incredible awareness to the importance of mental health in all people, even Olympians.

If you’re an athlete, or if you have kids who play sports, you might be worried and wondering what you can do to address potential mental health struggles related to sports. Consider these suggestions when it comes to sports and mental health:

  • Talk, talk, talk. If you find yourself experiencing stress, anxiety or depression related to a sport, consider finding a qualified counselor/therapist to discuss these issues. If you’ve got a child who plays sports, keep an open dialogue with them. Have regular, open and honest conversations about how they’re feeling, both mentally and physically.
  • Watch for warning signs. This is especially important if you have a child or adolescent in sports. Keep an eye out for things like mood, sleep, or behavior changes that seem concerning.
  • Find balance. It’s okay to admit that you need help or that you need to take a break from practicing or competing. If you feel overwhelmed consider meditation, trying new things or giving your body a rest.
  • Ask for help. There is no shame in seeking out help, whether it be with a therapist, psychiatrist or other medical health professional. Treating a mental illness is just as important as treating a physical one.

Protecting and prioritizing your overall health is essential for all levels of athletes. It’s not rare to have an athlete pull out of a race, game or event due to a physical injury. Seeing an athlete withdraw for mental health reasons is much less common, however, its recognition is just as important. The hope going forward is that we assist athletes in all aspects of performance and recognize that mental health is health.

Thomas Bills, M.D., is a psychiatrist with a special interest in sports psychiatry. Dr. Bills is welcoming athletes to his office in the Towsley Building, located on the campus of MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland. Those who would like to make an appointment may call the office at (989) 839-3385.

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