Mental health discussions for athletes needed now more than ever

February 3, 2020
Jamey Houle

By Darby Clark

On Dec. 30, 2019, Bryce Gowdy stepped in front of a train and ended his life.

The 17-year-old Florida high school football star, who had signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Georgia Tech, is a recent name in a list of many student-athletes who have committed suicide, drawing attention to the need for greater awareness and more intentional measures for helping student-athletes with mental health issues.

Ohio State sports medicine psychologist Jamey Houle, PhD, pictured at left, said increasing numbers of students are entering college having been diagnosed with or on medicine for mental health conditions—athletes included—which has encouraged people to actually discuss matters of mental health.

“The idea is, ‘I’m not going to talk about my mental health because it’s seen as a weakness, and that I’m not strong enough to handle my concerns,’ but we know due to kind of the genetic component and brain chemistry that sometimes, it’s really not in folks’ control,” Houle said. “So we’re really trying to break the stigma associated so people can open up, and I think that the stigma is going down to the point that a lot more people are reaching out, and that’s why you might see the numbers go up.”

The need to speak up became even more prevalent in January when Ohio State basketball player D.J. Carton stepped away from the team to address mental health concerns he said had been impacting him since his senior year in high school. The importance of seeking help—and caring for self over performance—made Carton’s situation all the more significant and respected.

Houle, a panelist at the free April 16 SSI event on athletes and mental health entitled “MindGames,” said for former generations of athletes, making mistakes carried a heavy weight, but with the advent of social media, that burden can be crushing today, especially at the college level.

“Some pressures are unique that didn’t exist 30 years ago,” Houle said. “Student-athletes, and I would say the college student population as well—their life is on display with social media. “When I was an athlete, I could have a bad competition and only the people around me knew about it. But if I have a bad performance now, and it’s put on Instagram or people can tweet at me, it can take a toll on your mental health. So I think that that’s a factor.”

For recruits coming into a collegiate program, Houle said, there is an added pressure that can exacerbate pre-existing struggles as athletes try not to make any waves on their new team.

“They want to live up to expectations,” Houle said. “They’ve been recruited from all over the country to come in and perform, so they want to make a good impression, they want to fit in, they want to find a role, they want to contribute.”

Some academic institutions are beginning to recognize and act on the mental health needs of their athletes, and according to Houle, one particular concept is particularly effective in this endeavor: empathy.

“Having the student athletes empathize with people who are struggling with a mental health concern makes them more likely to be open to help other people, as opposed to going, ‘You know what, that person, they’re struggling over there, and they just need to be tougher,’ or something. But if they learn how to empathize with them, they’re more likely to help,” Houle said.

Since trying to suppress or hide these mental struggles only makes them considerably worse, Houle said, it’s imperative that these conversations happen.

Houle’s advice for how to approach that dialogue: “The earlier, the better.”