Athletes and Mental Health

If you’re not paying attention to the Olympics, or the news, or social media you may have missed the news that Simone Biles didn’t have the Olympic performance that the world predicted. Instead, she launched a nationwide conversation on mental health. This turn of events gave Americans to respond with support or to once again show just how little empathy many choose to extend to anyone they disagree with. Sadly, American Couch Critics rose to the occasion in FULL FORCE!

Of the most egregious insults, in my opinion, was the comparison of Simone to Tom Brady. To claim that somehow Simone was weaker than a man who seems to play by his own set of rules, (SpyGate and DeflateGate ring a bell?) and has been accused of cheating multiple times is ridiculous.

Tom Brady may pretend that he handles the stress of America’s expectations well, but I’d much rather celebrate a role model who acknowledges their weaknesses and asks for help than one who pretends they are in complete control and cheats when it looks like they may lose.

The issue with the Couch Critic’s snap judgment about Simone Biles’s personal decision is that public shaming of her didn’t impact Simone. This professional did what she thought was best for both her mental health and her teammates. And while the critical post that lacked all empathy didn’t impact Simone in the slightest way, it potentially influenced the athletes they personally know.

Many Athletes Deal with Anxiety

The NCAA has tracked the mental health of athletes for over a long time. In 2011 a report from Ann Kearns Davoren and Seunghyun Hwang titled Mind, Body and Sport: Depression and anxiety prevalence in student-athletes revealed: “About 30 percent of the 195,000 respondents to a recent American College Health Association (ACHA) survey reported having felt depressed in the last 12 months, and 50 percent reported having felt overwhelming anxiety during the same period.”

The report states, “While depression and anxiety have been found to be significant predictors of a lower grade-point average and poor athletics performance, they’re also highly correlated with other risky behaviors, including suicide.

One of the most concerning points from the data was the indication that student-athletes are less likely to report having received psychological or mental health services from a variety of providers, including counselors and psychiatrists than non-athletes.

The Issue Continues to Get Worse

You might think with such alarming results we would start to see action around integrating mental health initiatives for athletes. Sadly, in 2019 a report reveals that the mental health epidemic is worsening.

With young adults, especially college athletes, the statistics are startling: 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Among that group, 30% seek help. But of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% do.  Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety.

From 2011-2019 the percentage of college athletes who seek help for mental health decreased 20%, yet the percentage of athletes who admit they deal with mental health issues remains the same. This is alarming.

Noted in the 2019 study 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis. The NFL responded to this by adding Psychologists. Yet Couch critics remain critical of this crisis. Even though the athletes in their own homes may suffer from the same mental health conditions!

This is a Ministry Opportunity the Church is Missing

Sadly, what I’ve observed is that the Church is so busy publicly shaming Simone Biles for “quitting” that they have completely lost sight of the ministry opportunity sitting in front of them. How many athletes would benefit from an empathetic ear? How many students need a word of encouragement to seek help? Who do you know that simply needs to hear they are valuable regardless of what the scoreboard says? Generation Z is longing for adult mentors. This is a perfect opportunity to share the truth where current culture tells them they aren’t enough. It’s the perfect opportunity to be salt and light in a dull and very dark space. And all it takes choosing empathy over shaming people. Seems like something the Church should choose regardless of the situation doesn’t it?

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