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Elite Athletes vs. Mental Illness: Victory Over Self-Defeat

elite athletes vs. mental illnessAmerica in the late Summer and early Fall. Among the sounds of lawn sprinklers, children laughing and playing outside, and bees buzzing by, you can often hear shouting from living rooms all across the land: “Let’s Go, Guys!” “We Got This!” “C’mon you idiot, what the [redacted] are you doing?!”

Football is back. And, this year, the shouting and celebration will likely start even earlier, as millions tune to watch the Summer Olympic Games in Rio.

Athletes Inspire Us

In 2015, NFL games made up 45 of 50 most-watched TV shows in the fall season. And, the Summer Olympics, which only take place every four years, are also sure to draw in similar numbers of viewers. It’s plain to see that there’s something about athletics that deeply resonates with many people.

Although each sports fan probably has his or her own personal reasons for loving their game, there are some common cultural touchstones across the (score)board. In these intense match-ups between opponents, we see stories of people finding and exceeding their limits, working through pain and injury, and falling down and getting back up. Many of us probably see parallels between these stories and our day-to-day lives.

As we watch our athlete-heroes sprint, tackle, throw, hit, cycle, swim with incredible speed, strength, and agility, they may appear to us to be invincible — maybe even superhuman. But, the truth is that outside of the arena, many athletes struggle with the same kinds of feelings and impulses we all do; many even battle mental disorders and addictions.

The Sports World’s Most Hidden Injuries

“In sports, there’s a lot of people out there suffering and they don’t even know it. That’s because they can’t identify with mental illness. These people just feel like they’re just having a bad day or that it’s just weakness,” says New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall in a 2015 article for theguardian.com. Marshall was diagnosed with a personality disorder in 2010 and now advocates for others struggling with mental illness through his Project 375 Foundation.

For some athletes, their sport becomes a smokescreen that hides deeply rooted trauma and behavioral health issues. And, the higher the level an athlete reaches, the less likely they are to ask for help. Mental illness is often wrongly associated with weakness, and weakness is a trait that is unacceptable to most athletes. It’s also often unacceptable to their coaches and their fans, which makes talking about the problem even harder.

Breaking the Stigma and Taking the First Step

Elite and professional athletes like Brandon Marshall and Michael Phelps, who also recently came forward to publicly discuss his own mental health struggles, are playing a critical role in helping to break the stigma surrounding mental illness in the sports community and in our society at large.

Even though ultimately, athletes are responsible for their own performance in the arena, they don’t get there without help. Coaches, trainers, managers, agents, family, and friends all play a role in helping them develop the skills and get the support they need to reach their full potential. Why can’t we start to look at treatment for mental illness the same way?

If there’s an addiction, a mood disorder, or a personality disorder that’s holding you back, you don’t have to feel ashamed and you don’t have to be afraid to reach out. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. In fact, speaking out in an environment where you fear you will not be well-received is the opposite of weak — it takes real guts and courage. And, you might be surprised by how people react. Once he came forward, other people in the league starting speaking out about their own struggles and asked him where to turn for help.

Like coaching teams, mental health treatment programs are designed to help you heal your hidden emotional injuries, and practice and develop skills for moving forward with your life and reach your full potential. Don’t get sidelined by mental illness. Get the help you deserve and get back in the game.

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Elite Athletes vs. Mental Illness: Victory Over Self-Defeat


Andrea Sauceda

Andrea Sauceda is the Internet and Social Media Director at The Meadows of Wickenburg, Arizona and is a mental health advocate. You can find her on Twitter @AndreaSauceda or @meadowsrecovery.


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APA Reference
Sauceda, A. (2018). Elite Athletes vs. Mental Illness: Victory Over Self-Defeat. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 20, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/elite-athletes-vs-mental-illness-victory-over-self-defeat/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.