‘Mental health is health:’ For student-athletes, pain goes beyond the physical

By Madeline Coleman

The beat echoed throughout Carmichael Arena, bringing fans of all ages to their feet.

A little girl in the center of the third row clapped her hands to the music. She spun in her red polka-dot dress, dancing along with the routine happening several yards away.

Young girls sashayed in between rows of seats while little boys ran around with pompoms. A few were dressed as princesses, others as superheroes. College students and athletes danced along with the music, cheering for their friends as the gymnasts competed on the floor.

The North Carolina gymnastics team stared at the audience during their floor routines, smiles etched across their faces at the fans’ reactions to their performances. It’s their favorite thing to see.

While on the surface the gymnasts were poised and smiling, there was a little thought lingering in the back of their minds during the Feb. 9 meet against Towson. The win paled in comparison to the night’s theme. It was the team’s first-ever mental health awareness meet.

The sport is defined by beauty and perfection, typically put under a microscope to see if it’s a sport or an art. It’s both, but that doesn’t help the mental health problem that runs rampant throughout gymnastics and the athletic community as a whole.

Starting the conversation

UNC gymnastics head coach Derek Galvin walked into a boardroom last summer for the East Atlantic Gymnastics League coaches meeting, eager for that day’s topic: mental health.

Towson gymnast Olivia Lubarsky started the university’s mental health campaign last year, labeling it “Own Your Roar.” It began with her personal struggle with anxiety and depression, and how she wanted athletes to own their mental illnesses rather than hide from them.

Galvin had heard about Towson’s mental health awareness meet and was interested in learning more. It’s a theme he had wanted to do for several years.

“I knew we wanted to do something around that area, but I didn’t know how to start,” Galvin said.

Galvin brought the materials home with him that the Towson coach had passed out during the meeting and met with Dr. Jeni Shannon, UNC’s director of mental health and performance psychology, and Cricket Lane, assistant athletic director for student-health development; he wanted to discuss the next steps for this meet. Between the rise of mental health issues in young adults and the trauma within the gymnastics community after the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, Galvin wanted to be one of the first people to start the conversation.

“For anyone between the ages of 16-25, life can be really rough sometimes,” said Galvin. “We can destigmatize the use of resources to cope and handle the struggles we all face at times … the pressures on young people can take a toll.”

Daniel Eisenberg, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, conducted surveys with student-athletes who participated in educational presentations from all 31 athletic teams at the university. As he stated in a USA Today article, Eisenberg found that most collegiate athletes who struggle with mental health illnesses don’t seek help.

According to his findings, 33 percent of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Within this group, only 30 percent seek help; however, only 10 percent of collegiate athletes do.

“We’ll talk about physical health all day long,” Shannon said. “In the athlete world, no one is ashamed to say they tore their ACL, but people don’t necessarily say they have depression.”

‘We’re people too’

The lights dimmed in Carmichael Arena as the video board came to life.

All eyes looked up as different UNC athletes came across the screen, laughing and smiling at what the person behind the camera said. Then, their faces turned serious.

“We perform on the field,” women’s lacrosse player Riley Harrison said.

“We excel in the classroom,” gymnast Jamie DeCicco said in the next frame.

A few more athletes were shown in the next few frames, commenting on how they help in their community and “bleed Carolina blue.” While this is something most fans know, the remainder of the video showcased different athletes talking about worries an athlete may deal with.

“We wonder if it will all work out,” men’s tennis player William Blumberg said.

“We struggle to be our best selves,” women’s tennis player Jessie Aney said.

The two-minute “Mental Health: More than a Tar Heel” video was created by the student-athlete representatives on the UNC Student-Athlete Advisory Council. Although several administrators, including Shannon, have talked about making this video for several years, the students took the initiative and volunteered for the video. Harrison wrote the script with the help of other athletes, while Shannon provided advice when needed.

The student-athletes want to encourage their peers to start a conversation about mental health in an attempt to end the stigma. Although they compete on a national stage, their thoughts and feelings are just as valid as others.

There’s more to an athlete than their sport.

“You are more than a Tar Heel,” men’s basketball player Brandon Robinson said near the end of the video.

The lights came back on and a few audience members wiped away a stray tear. Out on the concourse, Counseling and Psychological Services and Embody Carolina, a student group that’s dedicated to preparing students to have conversations about eating disorders, had set up tables with pamphlets and fliers for the attendees of the gymnastics meet.

In agreement with the UNC’s athletic department, the team debuted the “Mental Health: More than a Tar Heel” campaign video before and after its meet as a way to take a stand.

“It means that we’re more than the number on our back or the school on our back,” junior gymnast Mikayla Robinson said. “We’re people too, and I feel like people forget that a lot, because they’ll tear into you on social media and stuff when you’re not doing as well.”

The most important reminder in the video, according to several of the gymnasts, was that mental health is just as important as physical health – and should be treated as such, especially with athletes. Sometimes, the focus on mental health will get brushed aside.

“It’s important because when you look at athletes, you don’t necessarily think mental health is a big thing for them, but in reality, it is a big thing,” sophomore gymnast Lily Dean said. “I think competing for that and bringing awareness was important.”

Destigmatizing in an immediate culture

First, there were handwritten letters.

Then, the telephone and instant messaging on the family computer.

Now, cellphones and laptops hardly ever leave people’s reach.

It’s the age of immediacy, which has only fed into the mental health problem with the rise of social media.

“We’re seeing more and more evidence that social media, despite in theory (that) it’s supposed to be connecting us more, truly makes people feel more alone,” Shannon said. “It’s very brief, kind of less meaningful interactions, but I think the bigger part is everybody’s putting their best versions of themselves out there and everyone gets caught up in the comparisons, and it seems like everybody has a perfect life based on their social media posts.”

Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2015 that analyzed the connection between social media and young adult mental health. The most glaring statistic found in the study was that those who view social media platforms at least 58 times per week were three times more likely to feel socially isolated compared to those who use social media nine times per week or fewer.

In the age of immediacy with apps that are supposed to make people feel more connected, there’s a chance that they might cause more harm than good. Between the rise of social media and competing on a national stage, media scrutiny adds to the problem as well for student-athletes.

As more research is being done about this generation’s mental health, the NCAA and Power 5 conferences have pushed to make student-athletes’ mental health a priority. The NCAA in 2016 released “Mental Health Best Practices,” which offers guidelines for understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness. In January, the Power 5 conferences passed legislation to strengthen the mental health services and resources provided at universities.

For UNC gymnastics, the Feb. 9 mental health awareness meet was the team’s way of taking another step forward in destigmatizing the conversation.

“We’re really hoping to have mental health be treated exactly like physical health because mental health is health,” Shannon said. “And hoping by starting the conversation, it destigmatizes it in that way, and people are most likely to get the support they need, whether that’s professional help or support from friends or family.”

Edited by Brennan Doherty