Sports / 

Breaking the stigma around college athletes and mental health

Craig Rydalch and his son, Beau, joke around after shooting baskets at the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

Craig Rydalch and his son, Beau, joke around after shooting baskets at the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — It's something everyone has heard about, especially in recent years: the importance of taking care of your mental health.

Its effects have caused many to witness top athletes remove themselves from competition because they were not in the right state of mind to perform at their highest level: Simone Biles in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and Naomi Osaka in the French Open being the most recent examples.

But why does there continue to be an apparent stigma around mental health and athletes? Why do athletes feel like they have to be consistently mentally strong, masking away any negative emotions and feelings, and expected to perform at the highest level every day?

And why do young college athletes feel pressure to continue performing even when they have lost all joy and are mentally fatigued and broken?

For Weber State volleyball outside hitter Rylin Adams, she believes "there's a stigma around college sports and college athletes that they're unstoppable, and showing that you have a mental illness is like a sign of weakness."

Adams first came out about her mental health in 2018 when she decided to seek help for an eating disorder she developed upon returning home from her church mission while she was trying to quickly get back to her collegiate-body shape before the start of her sophomore season.

Now, an advocate for mental health, Adams embraces a difficult but simple fact that acknowledging a mental illness and seeking help is actually a sign of strength, not a weakness.

"Seeking help was hard for me because my whole life I viewed mental health as mental weakness; and I've always wanted to be tough and show everyone that I'm tough and I can hang with the big dogs," Adams told KSL.com. "Admitting that I had an issue felt like I was taking away from that.

"I realized that having those struggles doesn't mean you're weak; it's how you overcome them. And so admitting that you need help is a sign of strength and toughness."

The list of what hinders mental health for college athletes is long and daunting. For some, mental health is negatively affected by a lack of performing and a fear of not reaching their own or their coaches' expectations. For others, it's comparing themselves — their looks, social life and happiness — to others on social media.

Feelings of homesickness, isolation, a lacking support system or a bad breakup paired with the extreme pressure to perfectly perform for the public eye gets exhausting, and can slowly tear away at a young athlete who is trying their best.

"The stigma is super strong when it comes to athletics," former Utes basketball player Beau Rydalch told KSL.com. "We (athletes) get told to be mentally tough all the time even though, honestly, most of us make sure we are mentally tough but are really going through it and do the best we can at the moment."

Rydalch, who played for Utah from 2016-19, had a history of depression that ran through his family, but he was always seen as the one who didn't struggle with it. It wasn't until he was in college when he started to feel different — unlike his normal self — and started feeling the depression he had seen in others growing up.

The depression lead to thoughts of doubt and even attempts at suicide. Rydalch, like Adams, was in a position where he didn't know how people would take it or if he would be supported if he opened up about the mental state he was in. The feelings of loneliness and shame were so great he didn't think anyone would understand or care.

"When you're in that depressed state, you don't necessarily know or feel like talking to anybody. Your self talk has become so bad that you just don't think anybody cares," Rydalch said. "Getting over that point was probably the hardest because you talked yourself into such a hole that you don't think anybody really is going to give a (expletive) to help pull you out of it."

What surprised both Adams and Rydalch after publicly opening up was the support they actually received and the number of people they knew: other athletes — even their own teammates — and strangers reached out to them who were going through a similar situation.

"My team never really talked about it (mental health), and I didn't think that any of my teammates had any mental illnesses until I shared my story; and then I found out that my teammates actually did," Adams said.

"It's created this level of vulnerability on my team where we've been able to form deeper relationships because we've actually opened up about our true self, and our true struggles, and have relied on each other."

When Rydalch first opened up about his mental illness, he posted a picture on his Instagram account sharing that he survived suicide attempts. He said he never could've imagined the support and love he felt after sharing his experience.

"The number of people that reached out to me, thanking me because they were going through something at that moment, and felt so alone; or people that just showed support and love to me because they would have never thought that I would've been somebody that would be struggling with that stuff kind of blew my mind — strangers from all over," he said.

An athlete's college experience can be an exciting time but can become just as stressful when many are living away from home for the first time. They're trying to figure out who they are individually, selecting an area to study and a career path, toppled with hours of homework while working around what basically becomes a full-time job in a sport.

It becomes easy to ride the highs, but it becomes just as easy to get stuck in the lows.

It's likely impossible to flawlessly manage these stressors in life, but that is OK.

For athletes, and really anyone, there may be a discomfort in personally acknowledging a mental health issue, and that is OK.

But if athletes, who get put on pedestals and become heroes and idols to many, are dealing with the struggles of mental health, how many people are possibly fighting the same battle?

It's OK if you are struggling, and it's OK to seek help because you not alone in the battle.

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