I am a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin Madison. I was a student-athlete on the rowing team and competed for four years. I met a lot of people, went through many things, and saw even more in my time at Madison.
One thing I did not encounter were student-athletes willing to come out about their mental health struggles—though I know now they were there—admitting that they needed help and that they were broken people. I also did not see other teammates genuinely pursuing each other and reaching out to support to those struggling. There are hundreds of student-athletes in our athletic department wrestling with mental health and I can’t even imagine how many individuals are hurting because of mental health in this plagued world of ours. I think it is fair to say that mental health is the largest silent epidemic in athletic departments worldwide.
Athletes are typically at max capacity on any given day and have very little room for anything else. The reflexive “How ya’ doin?” question when passing a fellow teammate in the locker room accomplishes nothing of substance, because “Good, you?” only skims the foam off the latte. But the beverage has more than just the foam and that is why as athletes, teammates, friends, and sisters/brothers in Christ, we need to come alongside our teammates in need.
How can we emulate Proverbs 15:4—“the soothing tongue is the tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit”? What do you say? As an athlete I have struggled with mental health differences and have thought over and over again how I wished (in the early college years) that someone would have just asked me “How are you really doing?” I wanted someone to come alongside me in a deeper way for even a minute.
Here are a few simple statements that can penetrate the surface of a person’s life:
1) “You have been on my heart, how can I pray for you tonight?”
2) “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being super happy about life, where are you right now?”
3) “Hey I noticed that you have been ___ (not sleeping as much, not doing what you once loved, pushing friends away, not performing as well, crying more often, etc.). How can I help you right now?”
4) Ask them how their day is really going. Set aside two minutes for their answer. It may be all they need.
5) “Would you like to come over and watch a movie with me? It may be a nice distraction from life, and I don’t know about you, but I definitely need it.”
6) Ask them intentional questions:
“I remember you saying that you were struggling with X. How is that going?”
“Hey, you had a test yesterday. How did that go?”
7) Ask them to go for a walk and memorize scripture with you. This is a great distraction and a perfect way to reconnect with God and His word in times of struggle.
It’s a blessing to have a person or two in your life that will apply the above interpersonal skills—with care and concern thrown in for good measure—and who will move into your life. But even if no one will initiate with you, you can make some choices to create a more healthy environment for yourself.
Here’s how I got the help I needed:
Pursue someone to talk to. It could be a teammate, mom, dad, older siblings, discipler, therapist, psychiatrist, pastor, anyone! Find someone who will hear your darkest secrets and inner struggles.
Find someone who relates to you. Whether you have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse issues, or something else, it is helpful to find someone who relates to you. Try support groups, meet-ups, or just openly talking about your struggles so that you can create a space for others to open up to you.
Find something that cools your jets. I am someone who goes through seasons of irritability, whether it shows in being overheated or just “off.” For me, practicing handstands, writing with my left hand, and coloring always gets me out of my head. And of course prayer and memorizing scripture. What allows you to focus on something else and relieve stress?
Sleep, ‘cause it’s legit. My best grade point semesters were when I applied tips one through three above and added sleep to the mix. Everyone knows that they are supposed to get 7-9 hours of sleep, but most ignore it to their own peril. Getting sleep actually works to improve mental, physical, and emotional health. Try it for one month and then do an eval of your life: Happiness, grades, performance, weight, fitness, PRs, relationships, productivity. I only say this because I have seen it in myself. The semesters where I did not sleep very much, I performed the worst in school and in my sport. Whether you’re still a competing athlete or not, make it your goal to become a person who can help others, while at the same time doing what you need to do to get help yourself. It will change the way you live now and pave a healthier path for a lifetime of mental health.
Part II If You’re Struggling Now