Not So Healthy: The Prevalence of Mental Illness in Athletes
You walk past your local gym and see images of people in sports attire working out. Fitness magazines features glossy pictures of athletes. Ads for basketball, baseball, and football are common. Cereal companies put pictures of athletes on their cereal boxes.
Images of athletes assault us everywhere we go. Our gazes are guided to their muscles, their sweat. We look at their physical prowess, wondering if we could ever be so fit. We sign up for bootcamps to become as fit as our favorite stars.
Underneath the glossy pages and the narrative of health and wellness, athletes may not actually be any healthier than the rest of us.
The Pinnacle of Health … or Not
I live with an athlete. The first thing I have to say is it’s not really what it’s cracked up to be. Very few of us could live under the training regimens professional athletes dedicate themselves to. You don’t want to roll out of bed when your alarm goes off so you can get in your car and sit on your butt in a chair. The athlete drags themselves out of bed to hit the track, treadmill, or even the pool.
But all that training pays off, right? Not necessarily. First, athletes are more likely to be injured. The strain and stress on the tissues of the body puts them at higher risk for tearing a ligament or pulling a muscle. While athletes take precautions to minimize these negative effects, there’s a certain point where the probability of injury just increases.
Worse, overtraining and repetitive training put them at higher risk of injury. Runners tend to suffer more injuries because they only ever train for running. Tennis players have common injuries—rotor cuff tears and “tennis elbow”—because of repetitive motion.
There’s also a point where you’re pushing the body too far. Many athletes can develop cardiac issues. They may suffer from anemia. Many are chronically tired.
In short, athletes may be just as unhealthy as the rest of us. Not only is idolizing them setting us up for failure, it could actually make us more unhealthy.
What’s Not Talked about: Mental Health
Mental health isn’t commonly discussed as part of health in general. As the current epidemic grows, awareness is rising. Many people are now working to erase the stigma associated with mental health issues.
While we focus on anxiety and depression as expressed in the everyday lives of schoolchildren, young adults, new mothers, the elderly, and the average office worker, we often forget athletes commonly suffer from mental health issues as well.
This is a threefold problem. The first is we idolize athletes. As paragons of health, they’re not supposed to be “sick” in any way shape or form. We place the sheen of celebrity on them and ask them to erase illness from their persons. Next, since sports is male-dominated, there’s a certain reluctance to talk about mental health. Many people think of mental health issues as “emotional” problems.
Finally, there’s a mantra that sports and physical activity protect against mental health. There’s a certain refusal to believe people who participate in sports, who excel at them, who win gold medals or championships, would suffer mental illness because of the protective factor of exercise.
The Highs and Lows of Athlete Life
More athletes are shedding light on just how pervasive and common the issue is within the sports world. While there’s a tendency to turn a blind eye, there are many signs that mental health issues are just as common in the athlete population.
Many athletes have cited their struggles with depression, particularly after a difficult loss or after a large event. There’s an emerging consensus that Olympic athletes in particular may suffer from a sort of post-Olympics depression syndrome. They spend four years working up to an enormous event which puts them on the world stage. When it’s over, win or lose, many find themselves fading back into relative obscurity.
Many also feel lost. They’ve reached a goal. What next? What now? They’ve spent four years dedicated to a single goal. Finding a path forward is difficult. Some struggle to revive a sense of purpose.
Even a gold medal win doesn’t protect here. The high of winning sets athletes up for an even larger drop. After the glow and excitement of the win fades, they too may struggle to find purpose. After such a huge success, other goals and accomplishments may feel pointless.
Retirement, Injury, Chronic Pain
Retirement also puts athletes at a crossroads. Many retire quite young and face a sort of “mid-life crisis” well before mid-life. What do you do when your career is over at the age of thirty? While many do find success, it may take them a while to ever find any true fulfillment. When sports is your passion, moving on from it can leave you hollow. The transition from training to a “normal” life is also difficult.
Injury forces many athletes into early retirement. Dealing with an injury can be difficult enough, even when the athlete knows they’ll recover from it. Career-ending injuries can leave athletes with lifelong pain and a sense of bitterness. What if you retired before setting a world record or winning a gold medal?
Injury can leave athletes disabled or in chronic pain, which are risk factors themselves for depression and mood disorders. In the NHL, it’s coming to light that players are routinely “playing through the pain” and often self-medicating with alcohol or painkillers. Addictions can develop. Concussions are associated with mood alterations, including depression and anger issues. Concussions are prevalent in the NHL and NFL.
The sense of masculine pride that pervades many sports is also troublesome here, since it encourages players to endanger their health by doing things like returning from injury early or playing through an injury instead of seeking proper care. Athletes isolate themselves and self-medicate because of stigma around discussing mood disorder problems.
Body Dysmorphia and EDs
Within the athletic community, there’s acknowledgment of something called “runner’s anorexia.” Athletes who develop it will still eat like a normal person. They have snacks, they have three square meals a day. The difference, however, is they’re still running caloric deficits because of the immense amount of physical activity they do. They eat “normally,” but they don’t eat enough for their lifestyles. Since they appear “normal,” however, it’s difficult to detect.
Over-exercising is also common. Sports that demand a particular body aesthetic are associated with eating disorders. Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya announced her retirement from the sport in 2017, ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics, because she was working on her recovery from anorexia. Runners, swimmers, and gymnasts are also “usual” suspects when it comes to developing eating disorders.
This isn’t new either. In the 1970s, the Canadian media constantly criticized an Olympic diver about her weight. She ultimately retired because she could no longer stand the pressure to be thin.
While women may be more prone to suffering body dysmorphia and developing eating disorders, athletics in general is an area that all but encourages the development of body dysmorphia and disordered eating. Some athletes develop poor eating habits and binge-eating disorders as coping mechanisms for stress.
Exploring the Issues in Fiction
Many athletes are now speaking out about their own struggles with mental health, and they’re adding their voices to a growing conversation on how pervasive mental health issues are in our society.
I wanted to explore mental health in the Something in the Water series from the outset. Listening to my partner and his associates, I could easily see how an athlete could develop disordered eating. In discussion with him and through research, I discovered the problem is far-reaching and wide-ranging.
It was pretty much set in stone from the outset that Reese—one of the MCs of the series—was going to be struggling with mental health issues, with body dysmorphia and disordered eating. Volume One tells us Reese is more suited to “playing football” and “being the wrong body type” for his chosen sport, swimming. Volume One subtly hints Reese may have a problem, which become fully manifested in Volume Two as Reese’s behaviors spiral beyond his control.
Why Write about It?
Many people consider mental health issues in general to be “women’s problems.” People are even more likely to portray eating disorders this way. However, there’s a growing body of research showing disordered eating is increasingly common in men. Body dysmorphia appears to be growing. In the age of Instagram, young men are easily influenced by ideas of what the “perfect” body looks like and become increasingly dissatisfied with their own appearances.
Gay men may be at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, since gay culture emphasizes the male body. Swimming both focuses on particular body aesthetics for men and women and has a particular culture around sexuality. There are many high-profile gay swimmers (Ian Thorpe, for example). My partner’s own stories of his days in a university swim club paint a picture of a culture that’s welcoming of a wider variety of sexual identities.
So here we have Reese, a young gay man participating in a sport that subtly and quietly aspires to a particular aesthetic. Reese’s social milieu includes swimmers, who may develop preferences for particular body types. On top of that, the powers that be are telling Reese he’s not right for swimming. He’s slow in the water and not winning for a particular reason.
This isn’t to say all swimmers are gay or all of them have disordered eating and body dysmorphia. It’s not even that all gay swimmers have body dysmorphia. Reese’s teammates drive this home. JT and Brody are straight; Gabriel is gay. None of them seem to be suffering from body dysmorphia. As Gabriel acknowledges, there’s always something of an inherent risk.
Using Fiction to Address Real World Issues
Fiction often explores real world and contemporary issues. Mental health issues are particularly close to me, as are athletics and sports. In building this admittedly difficult narrative for Submerged and the remainder of Something in the Water, I wanted to take the opportunity to put this issue forward.
Many MM texts deal strictly with issues of characters’ sexuality or homophobia. While there are still shades of this in Something in the Water, I wanted to explore other issues too. Masculine identity, body dysmorphia, and mental health issues in sports are all issues people today are struggling with.
I also think, since we look up to sports stars, seeing them in vulnerable positions—even if they are fictional characters—helps us realize not only that they’re people too, but that it’s okay to struggle with these issues. That if you’re going through something similar, you’re not alone.
Books can and do save lives. Even if mine are difficult to read for some or disliked by many, I do hope they’ll find at least one reader who finds something of worth in them.