Battle Creek

Voices of Youth: Student-athletes need mental health support, too

Editor's Note:  This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA Foundation, City of Battle Creek, Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the Michigan After School Partnership. This series highlights stories created by Calhoun County youth in partnership with professional mentors.

Note: Student-athletes are not named for reasons of privacy.

BATTLE CREEK, MI — When it comes to mental health, stereotypes can sometimes get in the way of reality. Take student-athletes. Many parents, educators, and fellow students generally regard them as among the cream of the crop, in terms of health and wellness. Focus, determination, and confidence are common mental characteristics associated with playing sports. Yet it is frequently forgotten that these often-gifted individuals can also fall victim to the same challenging mental and emotional conditions that affect non-athletes.

Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that mental health concerns/illnesses have risen by 16 percent in the last 10 years. This suggests that each year there are more suicides, drug addictions, and other mental illnesses that have occurred and been diagnosed, with many more undiagnosed or reported. According to the American Psychological Association, the leading causes of mental illness in most people fall under these categories: continuing stress, negative thoughts, environment, unhealthy habits, childhood trauma, and genetics.

Sports are a popular extracurricular activity among students. Youth participation in high school sports eclipsed 7.8 million individuals in the 2022-23 school year, according to the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS). The website states that those numbers are expected to increase steadily through 2024. 

Another study, reported at Kindbridge Behavioral Health, a mental health service resource, stated that up to 35 percent of professional athletes face mental health issues. That translates to 3,917 diagnosed patients out of about 11,000 professional athletes who currently play sports.

The study suggests that athlete mental health issues can stem from several different circumstances that are directly correlated with their status as an athlete. Among them are overwork, social life/appearance, body dysmorphia, self-esteem, sleep schedule, mood and eating disorders, and setbacks or injuries that can lead to being disqualified from their sport. 

As youth grow toward adulthood, they move through a time in their lives that increasingly tests their level of maturity. The studies suggest that although many teens develop improved resilience to life’s pressures due to exposure to athletics, others experience a multitude of conditions through which they are more easily affected negatively. 

Artwork: David HarperInformal interviews on the topic with local Battle Creek high school student-athletes varied. Many reported developing numerous positive personal benefits as it relates to sports and the effects it has on them. Some of the rewarding qualities shared include, “self-achieving,” “making new relationships,” “stronger brain function [when facing challenges],” “better communication,” and “leadership skills.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some of the more negative outcomes reported included, “being time-consuming,” “pressure to perform at my best (i.e., performance anxiety),”  “overly competitive [socially toxic] environments,” “[mental/emotional] exhaustion,” and “[athletics] getting in the way of [other important] priorities.” 

Local student-athletes who were interviewed supported more formal research, demonstrating that the main issues that leave a negative impact are peer pressure, time management issues, and deprivation in the forms of work exhaustion, sleep insomnia, and other issues. 

In some cases, a person’s racial or gender identity can impact a student athlete’s mental health. Makayla says she felt racial pressure in her sports environment, due to there being not much diversity in it. 

Another local athlete says that participating in her chosen sport was very fun at first, but as time went on in the sports environment, it became overly competitive between athletes on the same team and social drama started to take place as well, in combination with other factors. The resulting stresses caused her to take a break, she says.

Jack, another Battle Creek student-athlete, says the sport he played helped with motivation, particularly around self-challenging and self-improvement skills. While he admitted that at times he felt exhausted from playing the sport, he says he always coped and pulled through.

While the overall picture of student athletics tends to yield positive outcomes among its participants, experts emphasize the need to look out for other, less favorable consequences. They say if athletes find themselves relating to stressful issues mentioned above due to playing sports, or even the stresses of schooling, share what’s going on with coaches, parents, teachers, or other concerned adults.

David Harper is a Battle Creek Central High School student who participated in the spring cohort of Voices of Youth.
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