Is There A Connection Between Female Athletes And Mental Health Issues?

Is There a Connection Between Female Athletes and Mental Health Issues?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, women are almost twice as likely as men to develop eating disorders, depression and anxiety. Life stressors naturally impact these conditions, with school and work immediately coming to mind as major sources of stress.

But for many young women, athletic participation can be a potent, sometimes deadly, source of day to day pressure and stress.

University of Pennsylvania runner Madison Holleran tragically illustrates the consequences that can occur when mental health struggles and major stressors collide. Holleran was 19 when she took her own life on January 17, 2014.

Following her death, the sports community made a concerted effort to better understand how the athlete’s death was linked to issues of mental health and sports concerns.

For example, FOX Sports interviewed over 25 female student-athletes as well as mental health experts and NCAA officials in order to understand the psychological climate inside locker rooms. What they discovered was eye-opening and enlightening.

A group of University of Southern California lacrosse players reported that, “We talk about (body image) every day.” This statement is revealing in light of the fact that bulimia or anorexia occurs at twice the rate among athletes as it does the female population in general (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders).

Body image goals can be unrealistic for women athletes as is the case of female competitors who try to both gain muscle while training but also stay slender to represent society’s standard of beauty.  One former D-I gymnast summed up the conundrum perfectly by saying, “I’ve never met a gymnast who was in love with their body.”

So, while many of the student-athletes interviewed told stories of grit and resilience, their tales also serve as warnings about the reality of what being a modern female collegiate athlete can entail. 

One glaring statistic stood out above the rest: The majority of young women who spoke about their experiences indicated that eating disorders linked to their sport was a top concern.

The reality is that within sports, the private issue of a woman’s body often becomes a public issue. For example, Dartmouth volleyball player Alexandra Schoenberger said that trainers hooked her up to a machine to record her body fat percentage, which some have likened to a sports equivalent of a, “jiggle test.”

Along these same lines, one D-I swimmer stated that men wore T-shirts with the words, “Whale watching,” a reference to her team.

Many were stunned to see the media use Holleran’s Instagram photos of her in a bikini in the coverage of her death.

The takeaway message is that mental health is as important as physical health, a fact that is too often obscured by the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Yet, in listening to these athlete’s words, mental and physical health concerns often collide in the world of collegiate sports. Of particular note, eating disorders are common sources of cardiovascular problems as well as osteoporosis.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, bulimia and anorexia have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. In their lifetime, more women will experience an eating disorder than breast cancer. Yet, while major co-ed sports teams commonly promote a pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness, there is no equivalent for mental health issues.

Sadly, the stigmatization of mental health challenges often prevent young women from seeking the help they need. According to the student-athletes interviewed, few had used on-campus counseling services due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Most of the female athletes reported the perception that psychological help was a, “sign of weakness.”

Of those who did seek treatment, they reported wait times of up to three weeks for an appointment.

Think about it: three weeks can mean the difference between life and death for anyone suffering from severe depression.

 “No one wants to admit there’s a problem until it’s too late,” said Duke basketball player Oderah Chidom.

In 2013 Dr. Brian Hainline declared mental health as the number one health and safety issue within the NCAA.

In fact, there are hundreds of pages pertaining to mental health documents on the NCAA website; 25% of these address women’s issues.

However, the interviews revealed that none of the female collegiate athletes were aware of a tangible NCAA resource.

Mary E. Wilfert, Associate Director of the NCAA Sport Science Institute, was asked if she thought the NCAA had a responsibility to directly address the mental health issues of student-athletes. She replied, “No, intervention cannot come out of the national office … we are not a medical organization.”

Despite her stance, the NCAA holds mandatory annual medical screenings and trainings for all athletes. Following the death of a Division II basketball player in 2011 due to sickle cell anemia, this disease is addressed in the mandatory meetings.

The Center for Disease Control reports that sickle cell anemia affects less than 1% of all Americans, while in contrast the National Eating Disorders Association reports that serious mental health issues affect 12% of the general population.

According to the NCAA, female heart problems (many times the result of eating disorders) and suicide are the second and third leading causes of death among student-athletes.

So why is mental health not part of the NCAA’s mandate? Associate Director of Public and Media Relations, Health & Safety Christopher Radford responded, “We can’t just decide to make this part of the guidelines, at every division they’d have to decide on legislation.”

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