Recently, I woke up to a Facebook notification.
When I gazed at the message, one eye half open and the other eye sealed shut, I read that a childhood friend of mine had shared an article with me entitled: Its Time To Break The Stigma Of Mental Health In Student Athletes. I was instantly intrigued. As a former Division I Athlete that privately struggled with mental health issues through out my career, the article struck an emotional chord.
Scrolling through the article, author Becca Martin shared her story about her experience as a collegiate lacrosse athlete. Like myself, Becca explained how invisible she felt through her constant pain. Unlike a broken arm, she said that most all mental health issues are easy to hide but very difficult to detect in others. Day after day she went through the motions of balancing her responsibilities as a college athlete, student and teammate. Because she was an athlete, she never wanted to appear weak and she never wanted to fall into the mental health stigma that society has so often placed on athletes.
Last week, I felt compelled to respond to her article on my weekly radio show, Erin & Erin @ Nite on KRUI 89.7.
When I was 10 years old my mom had a major heart attack.
Two hours before it happened, her mom died of cancer after a short, 2-week battle with the disease. When her heart attack occurred, she died for 20 minutes. By the time the paramedics shocked her heart 13 times, she was permanently brain damaged for the rest of her life. In the 12 years to follow, my mom has lived in countless brain injury facilities across the country. She cannot walk, talk, or remember anything after her injury. Now residing in a nursing home, my mom spends her time resting. She cannot leave. She cannot remember. She cannot make memories.
I wouldn’t wish her condition on anyone. Having a heart condition myself, I have always experienced extreme anxiety in knowing what happened to my mom. Although I played competitive volleyball for several years of my life, her story was a continual reel in my head. My first year of college volleyball made the reel spin faster. As my heart condition became more serious, the reel spun out of control. What was worse was that I never talked about it. I was ashamed of the toll my heart condition was placing on my mental health. There were countless days where I would finish a practice, get in my car, close the door and sob uncontrollably. Fear fueled my anxiety and depression.
What if I have a heart attack? What if I end up like her? How could I quit volleyball? How could I let my teammates down? What if I feel like this for the rest of my life?
Following my first heart surgery during my senior season last fall, I had major PTSD. Because I had to be awake during my surgery, each night I’d dream I was on the operating table. My fear continued. I found no relief. I kept everyone out of my thoughts. After all, I was STRONG. I wasn’t WEAK.
It wasn’t until Christmas break that my endless anxiety came full circle. After an evening with my dad, I broke. Through choking on tears I told him how truly miserable I was. How my mom’s injury and my condition were becoming too difficult for me to bare. I simply let go of every barrier I had ever held.
In one particular part of Becca Martin’s story, she said:
“(Athletes) continue to push through the pain because of how passionate they are about their sports. It’s time to stop pushing through the pain and star treating mental health like we would a torn hamstring.”
It’s time to break the barrier.
I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t know how anyone could fix my pain, a kind of pain that they couldn’t visibly see. I bought in to the idea that, because I was a college athlete, I was weak if I struggled with my mental health. I firmly believe, however, that some of the most important pain that needs to be healed is the pain of the mind. A healthy, strong athlete is an athlete that is sound physically, emotionally and MENTALLY. I appreciate authors like Becca who are willing to share that truth.
The stigma of mental health issues in athletes is very real. However, if athletes, coaches, parents and fans all recognize this prevalent issue, only then will mental health issues be cured.