Mind, body, and sport: Mental health disorders in student-athletes

MACON, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) - In sports, a sweep is a good thing. But, there's a dangerous issue among student-athletes that sports psychologists say is being swept under the rug.

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MACON, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) – Athletes, known for their confidence and strength, also face struggles beyond their competitions. Mental health issues are becoming a larger opponent to overcome.

Experts say, when it comes to student-athletes, unrealistic expectations fuel most of their troubles.

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During playoffs, such as those happening in the NBA and NHL, sweeps are a good thing for the winning team. But there’s a dangerous issue among young student-athletes.

Sports psychologists say their mental health is ignored and schools need to do more to help.

The saying goes, “you have to crawl before you walk.” Student-athletes like Steve Dolphus and Desmon Foston did that, but with a ball in their hands.



Desmon is a senior at Westside High. He’s getting ready to graduate. After four years, he became the basketball team’s starting point guard, led Westside to the final four his junior year,  broke the record for most assists in a season this year, and tied the school’s record for the most assists in a playoff game.

“If you really love the game, you just have to keep pushing and keep grinding for it,” Desmon said.

His road to stardom wasn’t a smooth one. Desmon said his mom is a hard-working single mom and his dad has been in and out of his life. He says many times his mom sends him to practices and games in an Uber.

Between helping his family and practicing, his focus wasn’t completely on school work.

“I’ve been doing really good this year with my grades. Been getting them up some more for colleges to see me,” Desmon said.

Georgia Tech wide receiver Steve, a Westside High alum, says football kept him out of trouble, but it’s overwhelming being a student-athlete.

“With work, practice going late, or missing tests. Got to make it up. You have to do more than a lot of regular students,” Steve said.

Adding layer upon layer of stress that’s unique to student-athletes.

“They have pressures to meet GPA requirements to stay on the team, sometimes to compete for athletic and academic scholarships. They have pressures to complete exams and get papers in, but there are pressures from their coaches and from the parents and these expectations can often time be unrealistic,” Mercer University Sports Psychologist Dr. Tony Stillman said.

Unrealistic expectations that Dr. Stillman says can fuel mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

“They’re also less likely than the general population to seek help,” Dr. Stillman added.

According to Stillman, student-athletes don’t ask for help because they fear to appear weak or coaches cutting their time in the game.

“One of the reasons why mental health problems in athletes are under-recognized, undertreated, and even understudied is because a lot of these problems present themselves as performance related issues,” Dr. Stillman said.

His role as a sports psychologist at Mercer University is to do research and teach. Dr. Stillman said sports psychologists at schools often focus on students’ athletic performances. For example: teaching them strategies to tune out noise at the free throw line, but not their full mental well-being.

“A football coach has an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, a special teams coach. They have all these specialty coaches, but who’s looking after the character of the players?” Middle Georgia’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes Area Director Michael Black said.

“There definitely should be more resources of people really trying to see what’s going on behind the scenes and not what’s just going on the field,” Steve said.

Black said FCA encourages student-athletes to redirect their tension and stress beyond the glory of the game. Namely to the glory of God.

“We do have kids who have to shoulder the weight of the family, so for us, we tried to intervene as quickly as possible and let that kid know it’s not all yours to bear,” Black said.

FCA also helps student-athletes realize some aspects of sports are beyond their control.

Dr. Stillman teaches that winning isn’t only about the game. It’s also a mental competition.

“Mental health becomes just part of a routine care for high school teams. College teams make an effort to destigmatize it,” Stillman said.

Dr. Stillman says some signs of mental health disorders parents and coaches to look out for is: irritability, a decline in grades and, or performance, changes in sleep, appetite, energy, level and concentration.

If someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, call the Crisis Line and Safe House of Central Georgia at (478)745-6820.