Stigmatization of Mental Illness in Athletes vs Non-Athletes

There is a fine line between athletes and non-athletes, and that is the fact that one plays a sport and one doesn’t. That is all there is! Often, there is this mis- conception that because someone is an athlete they don’t experience the same sickness, hard times, bad days etc. as non-athletes. That is wrong, and that is what brings me to what I want to talk about in this post. An article titled “The stigmatisation and denial of mental illness in athletes” by Thomas L. Schwenk gives a comparison between two patients who come in with the same presenting issues, which are “She/He is having increasing difficulty carrying out her/his daily responsibilities, lacks motivation and energy, and is irritable and discouraged. She/He reports trouble sleeping, is often late to her/his scheduled responsibilities, is not performing as well as previously in her/his job and other roles, and has had several minor injuries and mild headache and back pain” (Schwenk). The difference lies within the one of the patients being an athlete and the other not. Therefore leading to the doctor to conclude that the non athlete most likely is suffering from severe depression and that the athlete is suffering from burnout due to sport. The non-athlete would be prescribed medication, recommend to go to counselling, all of which would help them continue with their day to day life. On the other hand the athlete would be told to possible take a break from playing their sport, maybe sit out some games and practice, and ultimately stop their day to day life. So the question stands, why is there such a different approach in the diagnosis?  Thomas L Schwenk writes in the article three issues that stand out when attempting to answer this question:

“(1) Despite the known beneficial and protective effect of exercise on mental illness,1 athletes are still susceptible to depression and other mental illness, although perhaps at a lower prevalence than the general population.

 (2) Athletes may be even more susceptible to under-diagnosis and inadequate treatment of depression and other mental illness than are non-athletes,3 particularly for problems that are related to athletic training and performance and are viewed from a narrow physiological rather than a broader biopsychosocial perspective.

(3) The current conceptualisation of and approach to mental illness in athletes is fraught with stigmatization, denial, and dichotomous paradigms of “psychological” versus “physical” disease, which are inaccurate, unhelpful, and deprive the athlete of effective care.”

With all this said like the article states “competitive athletes are special in many ways, including a high level of goal orientation, a commitment to intense physical training and competition, and a decreased risk of depression and possibly other mental illnesses. But the risk of depression is not eliminated” (Thomas L Schwenk). It is important to treat each person fairly when it comes to diagnosing, despite knowing there background. Remembering athletes have the potential to struggle from mental illness just as much as a non athlete.

In a more recent article by British Journal of Sports Medicine it states that:

“Mental toughness and mental health are seen as contradictory terms in the world of elite performance. Sports culture has been slow to respond to athletes seeking psychological treatment. Seeking help may expose an athlete to risks of losing playing time, their starting role or even their contract to compete. Therefore, the incentives to ask for help and potentially get better are essentially outweighed by the negative consequences of appearing mentally weak.”

This message is implying that athletes live with this ‘weight on their shoulders’ and have standards to live up to. This in turn can result to a sad reality of misdiagnosis, because of the different standards for athletes. Although there is no direct statement saying that “athletes are evaluated differently than non athletes in regards to mental health” there are most definitely ideas (example stated above) which support the differences in stigma between diagnosing an athlete vs. non athlete with a mental health disorder.

“Michael Phelps locked himself in his bedroom for four days three years ago. He’d been arrested a second time for DUI. He was despondent and adrift. He thought about suicide.” “I didn’t want to be alive,” he tells USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t want to see anyone else. I didn’t want to see another day.” These are the words of a retired competitive American swimmer and the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time. Phelps is looked at as a role model for many people because of his great sporting ability, but this doesn’t mean he won’t face problems that non- athletes will. This is an important fact to note. It shows that we are all human, despite whether we are a teacher, student, athlete, non-athlete, coach, singer, etc. We all battle our own battle.

Image: source.


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