Most of us assume that each person shows the signs of depression in the same way: a sadness that doesn’t seem to go away. But that isn’t always the case, particularly for athletes who find themselves stressed out or faced with the onset of a mental disorder.
There are the usual signs of withdrawal and lack of interest in activities that a person once enjoyed. However, there are other ways that depression will manifest itself, especially in athletes and men.
“Sadness is an overrated symptom of what we think depression is,” said Joseph Roszkowski, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of services at Pathways Psychological Services in Wheaton. “With males, it’s usually an emotional flatness, not feeling anything at all.”
But this also could manifest as the person not feeling well or showing irritability.
“Unfortunately, the stereotype that people have about depression is that people are lazy or not caring, the opposite of lot of things people who compete in sports experience,” Roszkowski said, pointing out professional athletes who have money and could be vulnerable to substance abuse while also having the funds to support risky behaviors (like crashing expensive cars). These kind of behaviors are often seen as part of the bipolar mania where someone can feel invincible.
For other athletes, they might not be able to express their depression. Naperville-based sports psychologist Adrienne Skinner sees clients who will say they are performing badly, but they often don’t realize it’s depression. Her clients also feel pressure that leads to depression during injury recovery.
Roszkowski has started using mindfulness training with some of his clients. While none of them have come to see him specifically for issues related to sports competition, they are using the anxiety reduction techniques to focus and relax for sports.
Skinner sees much of the same: clients who came to her for help in other areas of life also happen to be athletes. But her experience is slightly different in that her clients usually manifest their depression issues as eating disorders.
“This affects their ability to stay focused and stay on task,” she said. “They can’t perform and then it becomes a vicious cycle.”
However, whether it be coping with anxiety or depression, it isn’t obvious like a broken leg. She calls them “invisible injuries” because athletes need to learn how to express them.
Stigma also plays its part when athletes seek help. While professional athletes sometimes tell their personal stories publicly, athletes in general aren’t reaching out for help, especially youth. There remains stigma and fear about how they will be viewed if they ask for help. Sometimes coaches get in the way, too.
Angela Adkins, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for DuPage County has seen this happen.
“One thing we have encountered occasionally within our school program is the coaches do not always get that this is a biological brain disorder, and some believe that exercise can cure all,” she said.
The NAMI school program, Ending the Silence, teaches high school students the signs and symptoms of mental illness. It recently went national, and all 1,100 affiliates of NAMI in the United States will receive training on this program.
It has the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of youth and educate them on what mental disorders look like and how to seek help.
“The stigma is not as strong, but it’s enough that in some way makes the athlete feel as though he or she is weak or has a character or personality flaw,” Roszkowski said.
To help end the stigma, NAMI will host Run for the Mind on Saturday to raise funds for funding of its mental health programs.