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Silence is the killer

By: Adam D’Angelo

Get in there, you’re fine, we need you to play. As he waits to enter the game, he suppresses his feelings for a few more moments to please his team. Standing in silence to counteract the fear that threatens to engulf him. His body no longer taking directions from his mind, and then, he’s free.

We’ve heard it thousands of times. There’s nothing wrong, you’re just stressed for now, and you will get over it. Society has socially constructed the idea that athletes are gladiators, tough physically and mentally. That’s far from accurate.

Mental illness is often overlooked at every level of sports. Athletes often feel abandoned when suffering from a mental illness because they might feel alone, weak and not understood.

Sport often become a disguise for athletes with mental health issues. We’re often more blind than Stevie Wonder to understand the struggle. The more skilled the athlete, the more desperate to reach the next level, the less likely he or she will seek help for the problems that exist internally.

Unfortunately, mental health has a stigma that is tied to weakness and that is the opposite of how athletes want to portray themselves. This label makes it difficult for them to come forward.

There is, of course, the issue of confidentiality. Whom can a player trust?

Athletes need people to talk to, but they don’t want their teammates, coaches, friends, or family to find out.  They fear their reaction. Then who can they talk to?

The University of Windsor has a Student Counselling Centre to help students that struggle with mental health issues.

Here’s how the process works…

If you are a first time patient, you must go in person to make an appointment. You will be asked to complete an application form and a treatment consent form. Your first appointment with a therapist can usually be scheduled within a few days of your initial application. During busy times of the year, however, you may have to wait a little longer.

Here’s my issue. Waiting is not okay. Waiting can mean life or death in certain cases. If an athlete or anybody struggling with mental health issues needs help right away then there should be more staff available to accommodate for that.

Ontario has a 24/7 student helpline called Good2Talk if students cannot meet with a professional in person in a moment of crisis. Generally, this is only a temporary solution.

There is also a program that exists in Canada called, Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative. Its vision is to ensure all Canadian student-athletes flourish in all areas of their life, including sport. The University of Windsor is not part of the “campus teams.” This needs to change immediately.

Another complicating factor is that coaches, administrators, general managers, team executives, are ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues. It is not discussed often, and non-existent in athlete’s orientation package. This omission’s concerning.

Indeed, I’d argue coaches should be required to have a certificate for mental health so they are aware of how to handle the issues that occur. Athletic departments as a whole should work with mental health practitioners; trained to look for signs of trauma, depression, stress, among other conditions.

These are the initiatives that campuses need. Bringing awareness to real issues in life, and not who won the game or scored the most points.

My impression is that mental health is seen as the weakness and we are too proud to admit when something is wrong. Building more platforms at the university will help, and actions need to be taken to protect vulnerable people and athletes.

Like gladiators, athletes are trained to defeat their enemies. Without proper mental health treatment or care, athletes could become William Rimmer’s Falling Gladiator.  

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