‘Then they break down’: CSU athletes talk mental health

Dorina Vida

Win versus lose; strong versus weak; mental health versus athletics. You celebrate their victories, bemoan their losses and study their every play and move, but do you consider the college athlete when they aren’t playing?

How athletes deal with their very human issues is a controversial topic that has forced them to defend their right to be vulnerable without feeling ashamed. Colorado State University athletes and faculty speak on the realities of mental health and the stigmas and stereotypes on mental health in athletics.

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“Athletes who walk through my door have no self-esteem,” said Jimmy Stewart, senior coordinator of counseling services for student athletes. “It’s based on doing something successful, which then means if they aren’t successful, … then they’re worthless. That is the biggest threat to athletes’ mental health.”

When a person is born, their parents don’t determine their worth based on whether or not they are a Division I athlete, but by the mere fact that they are alive and breathing, Stewart said.

“To quote an associate of mine, your self-esteem is the inherent knowledge of your own preciousness in the midst of your humanness,” Stewart said. “So, no matter what mistakes or what successes you have, you always know of your inherent preciousness.”

Stewart said a big issue for athletes is the way they determine their value and worth through their athletic and academic success. This often leads to depression, anxiety and other mental issues.

“Oftentimes, when people are troubled in their personal lives, their ability to play football becomes better because it’s an escape,” Stewart said. “You get out there and you are able to go and go, and there is a feeling of relief of getting rid of that energy.”

Then they break down, Stewart said.

“People don’t necessarily have a stigma around counseling. They have a stigma around being vulnerable. Being vulnerable means putting yourself out there to go to places where you don’t have power or control.” -Jimmy Stewart, senior coordinator, counseling services for student athletes

The stigma around mental health, especially in athletics, can be a defeating factor for many athletes as they consider how they should be concerned with self-care, Stewart said.

“People don’t necessarily have a stigma around counseling,” Stewart said. “They have a stigma around being vulnerable. Being vulnerable means putting yourself out there to go to places where you don’t have power or control. What I found is that people have stigma in our culture around vulnerability because vulnerability means weakness.”

Stewart said according to author and expert Brené Brown, there is healthy shame and there is unhealthy shame. Healthy shame understands the limits to a human being in that there will be times when a person has no control and that they are fallible and accepting of this rational weakness. 

“Our culture says it isn’t OK to be limited and that we must push through,” Stewart said. “That’s the American spirit. What we have been told in our culture (is) when you have a problem or are vulnerable, they don’t say this is healthy limiting. They say, ‘Gosh, I’m worthless if I have a problem.’”

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Stewart said the cultures of different races hold vulnerability to different standards, some allowing weakness more than others. These varying reactions to vulnerability are the result of historical injustices and the segregation of people in the nation’s history.

This explains how individuals have shaped their cultures and their approach to vulnerability as a result of this abuse. 

“If someone is afraid or in pain, a coach will say, ‘It’s OK to be that way for two seconds, now get after it,’” Stewart said. “If you can’t go to your people and can’t get support, a lot of times people will isolate themselves, leading them down a path of self-destruction.”

Ellison Hubbard, defensive lineman for the Rams football team and junior journalism major at CSU, said he sometimes has to remember what really matters and that no matter what everyone else says or does, he decides whether one failure among many successes will impact him.

“Sometimes after losing, you can be into boo-hooing, saying things like ‘I’m tired’ and ‘Maybe I just want to leave’ or ‘This is too much for me,'” Hubbard said. “This year was hurting our self-esteem because we were losing, and we were kind of just down. But now we are seeing the light. Now people are getting healthy and where they need to be so that we can be good on and off the field.”

“You have to find your own support system. … You have to move on and keep trekking through life.” -Jessica Jackson, outside hitter, number 21, Rams volleyball

In an email to The Collegian Ashley Michelena, leadoff batter on the Rams softball team and junior human development and family studies major at CSU, wrote that the impact athletics has on her has been positive, teaching her skills that provide value to her professional, personal and athletic life. 

“I don’t necessarily think there is a stigma; it’s more that mental health tends to get overlooked with athletes,” Michelena wrote. “Trying to balance softball, school and everything else that is happening in life can be very stressful and can take a toll on you. I think it’s important to keep a positive mindset and always communicate with my teammates if I need to talk.”

Michelena wrote that she feels everyone handles life and life’s situations differently, and athletes have a lot of support from teammates, coaches and trainers. Even when things get tough, she developed methods of self-care.

“When times get busy, I take one thing at a time, complete it to the best of my ability and go on to the next thing,” Michelena said. “I’m always giving it my all, and then some, while remaining positive. This is essential in life.”

CSU senior communication studies major Jessica Jackson, an outside hitter on the Rams volleyball team, said losing a game isn’t a personal affront to her and her teammates or their abilities, but rather a learning experience reminding them they can always be better than how they played.

“We are human; we lose games; we mess up,” Jackson said. “It took me two years to realize I do need to take care of myself mentally. I realized that being mindful and staying present does help.”

Every athlete wants to give up at some point, Jackson said. Balancing athletics and grades and maintaining a social life gets difficult. Even so, having a support system provides a safe space when things get tough. 

“You have to find your own support system,” Jackson said. “You can say ‘Yeah, I got a D on this test — not my greatest grade, but it’s over now.’ You have to move on and keep trekking through life.”

Dorina Vida can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @simply_she_.