For student-athletes, pain goes beyond the physical

4/1/19, 9:27PM
By Madeline Coleman
The Daily Tar Heel

The beat echoed throughout Carmichael Arena, bringing fans of all ages to their feet.

The North Carolina gymnastics team looked up at the audience every so often during their floor routines, smiling at the fans’ reactions. It’s the gymnasts’ favorite thing to see.

The sight of joy causes a wave of relief to wash over the gymnasts. Their hard work during practice had paid off.

The sport is defined by beauty and perfection, typically viewed under a microscope. The continuous pressure from spectators and themselves doesn’t help the mental health problem that runs rampant throughout the gymnastics and athletic communities as a whole.

UNC gymnastics head coach Derek Galvin walked into a boardroom last summer for the East Atlantic Gymnastics League coach’s meeting eager for that day’s topic: mental health.

Towson gymnast Olivia Lubarsky started the University’s mental health campaign last year, labeling it “Own Your Roar.” It began because of her personal struggle with anxiety and depression and how she wanted to advocate for athletes to own their mental illnesses rather than hide from them.

Galvin had heard about Towson’s gymnastics team’s mental health awareness meet, and was interested in learning more. It’s a theme he has wanted to do for several years.

“I knew we wanted to do something around that area, but I didn’t know how to start,” Galvin said.

Galvin brought the materials home with him that the Towson head coach had passed out during the meeting, and met with Jeni Shannon, UNC’s director of mental health and performance psychology to discuss the next steps for this meet. Between the rise of mental health problems in young adults and the trauma within the gymnastics community after the sexual abuse scandal of USA Gymnastics’ team doctor Larry Nassar, Galvin wanted to be one of the first people to start the conversation.

“For anyone between the ages of 16 to 25, life can be really rough sometimes,” said Galvin. “We can destigmatize the use of resources to cope and handle the struggles we all face at times…The pressures on young people can take a toll.”

A study from the University of Michigan School of Public Health surveyed student-athletes who participated in educational presentations from the 31 athletic teams at the university. The study found that most collegiate athletes who struggle with mental health illnesses don’t seek help.

According to its findings, 33 percent of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Within this group, only 30 percent seek help. For college athletes, the number dwindles to only 10 percent.

“We’ll talk about physical health all day long,” Shannon said. “In the athlete world, no one is ashamed to say they tore their ACL, but people don’t necessarily say they have depression.”

Destigmatizing an immediate culture 

First, there were handwritten letters.

Then, the telephone and instant messaging on the family computer.

Now, cellphones and laptops hardly ever leave people’s reach.

It’s the age of immediacy feeding into the mental health problem with the rise of social media.

“We’re seeing more and more evidence that social media, despite (the fact that) in theory it’s supposed to be connecting us more, truly makes people feel more alone,” Shannon said. “It’s very brief, kind of less meaningful interactions, but I think the bigger part is everybody’s putting their best versions of themselves out there and everyone gets caught up in the comparisons, and it seems like everybody has a perfect life based on their social media posts.”

Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2015 that analyzed the connection between social media and young adult mental health. The most glaring statistic found in the study was that those who view social media platforms at least 58 times per week were three times more likely to feel socially isolated compared to those who use social media nine times per week or fewer.

In the age of immediacy, apps that are supposed to make people feel more connected might cause more harm than good. Between the rise of social media and competing on a national stage, media scrutiny also adds to the problem for student-athletes.

As more research is done about this generation’s mental health, the NCAA and Power 5 conferences have pushed to make student-athletes’ mental health a priority alongside their physical health. The NCAA released a document outlining best practices to deal with mental health in 2016, offering guidelines to understand and support student athletes. In January 2019, the Power 5 conferences passed legislation that strengthens the mental health services and resources provided at universities.

For UNC gymnastics, the Feb. 9 mental health awareness meet was the team’s way of taking another step forward in destigmatizing the conversation.

“We’re really hoping to have mental health be treated exactly like physical health because mental health is health,” Shannon said. “And hoping that by starting the conversation, it destigmatizes it in that way, and people are also more likely to get the support they need, whether that’s professional help or support from friends or family.”

‘We’re people too’

The lights dimmed in Carmichael Arena as the video board came to life.

All eyes looked upwards as different UNC athletes came across the screen, laughing and smiling at what the cameraperson said. Then, faces turned serious.

“We perform on the field,” women’s lacrosse player Riley Harrison said.

“We excel in the classroom,” gymnast Jamie DeCicco said in the next frame.

Other athletes appeared in the next few frames, commenting on how they help in their community and “bleed Carolina blue.” While this is something most fans know, the remainder of the video showcased different athletes talking about worries an athlete may deal with.

“We wonder if it will all work out,” men’s tennis player William Blumberg said.

“We struggle to be our best selves,” women’s tennis player Jessie Aney said.

The UNC Student-Athlete Advisory Council took the initiative and volunteered to create the two-minute “Mental Health: More than a Tar Heel” video. The student-athletes want to encourage their peers to start a conversation about mental health in an attempt to end the stigma. Although they compete on a national stage, their thoughts and feelings are just as valid as others.

There’s more to athletes than their sports.

“You are more than a Tar Heel,” men’s basketball player Brandon Robinson said near the end of the video.

In agreement with the UNC Athletic Department, the team debuted the “Mental Health: More than a Tar Heel” campaign video before and after its meet as a way to take a stand.

“It means that we’re more than the number on our back or the school on our back,” junior gymnast Mikayla Robinson said. “We’re people too, and I feel like people forget that a lot because they’ll tear into you on social media and stuff when you’re not doing as well.”

The most important reminder in the video, according to several gymnasts on the team, was that mental health is just as important as physical health and should be treated as such, especially with athletes. Sometimes, the focus on mental health will get brushed aside.

“It’s important because when you look at athletes, you don’t necessarily think mental health is a big thing for them, but in reality it is a big thing,” sophomore gymnast Lily Dean said. “I think competing for that and bringing awareness was important.”