Torn ACLs, broken fingers, and aching joints are all reasons players are put on the disabled list. In the major leagues, press releases are written about injured athletes. In college and high school, players see trainers to nurse their injuries back to health. But one injury receives no special attention and often goes unreported by athletes, no matter their level of play: mental illness.
Since 2005, 30 professional athletes have committed suicide including Jovan Belcher, Junior Seau, Ryan Freel, and Rick Rypien. Fifteen were current or former players of the National Football League. Nine were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a history of brain trauma) post mortem. Over half battled depression or other mental illness prior to their death.
Depression does not discriminate. Even professional athletes placed on a pedestal are susceptible to the disease. According to the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, athletes face unique risk factors to mental illness. Injuries, especially career-ending mishaps, can put athletes over the edge. Common emotional responses to injuries include: sadness, anger, and frustration. Other triggers for depression in athletes are competitive failure, eating disorders, loss of personal autonomy, and overtraining.
Mental illness stemming from these stressors can be as debilitating as a physical injury. For some athletes, mental illness can break their game completely. Impacts of mental illness on high-profile professional athletes receive a great deal of attention, but it is also important to recognize these issues in young athletes.
Now a student at Susquehanna University, Courtney Saylors was a member of her varsity softball team all four years of high school. She was a three-year captain and two-time MVP who received all-star nominations in her sophomore and junior years. Despite her achievements, her career ended before she could advance to the collegiate level.
“I put all the blame on my physical injuries,” Saylors says. “I have a bad back, beat up knees, and a sore shoulder. I had a couple concussions in high school. That’s all true. But the real pain, the pain I couldn’t play through any longer, it was mental.”
She never opened up about her struggle in high school because she did not think anyone would understand. It had been a long four years playing for a coach that was emotionally abusive.
“He used me and abused me,” Saylors says. “When I was physically hurting, I felt pressured to play on. No one ever told me to stop. It wasn’t until my injuries started effecting my game that I realized I was in trouble.”
Her coach made her feel worthless because her performance on the field faltered after a series of unfortunate injuries. The emotional pain of feeling like a failure was too much and she chose to end her career.
“I felt so broken, so emotionally crushed. It was like my dreams were ripped from underneath me. It’s been three years and I haven’t forgotten the pain. Maybe because I still feel it. Deep down, I still feel like a failure.”
It is not often she talks about this, her pain. But it is something that should be discussed.
Adonal Foyle, a retired professional basketball player, echoes the sentiments Saylors expresses.. In a piece he wrote for The Players’ Tribune, Foyle points to professional sports to raise awareness for mental illness.
“Professional sports have an opportunity to lead the way in removing the stigma that comes with being an athlete who is struggling with mental distress,” Foyle writes. “It’s time we think about what’s going on with athletes above their shoulders.”
Experts in professional sports agree: a serious conversation about mental illness in athletes must happen from the top down. More retired athletes, like Terry Bradshaw, are admitting to experiencing anxiety and depression. If more athletes are willing to be open about their struggles, maybe more lives will be saved.