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Student-athletes and Mental Health: We're People Too

In the wake of the tragic suicide of Washington State quarterback, Tyler Hilinski, athletes, coaches, and sports fans alike expressed their heartfelt condolences to family and friends of the football star via social media. While Hilinski’s death went viral and came as a tragic shock to the sports community, it also brought up a subject that is hardly talked about, if at all, in our society: the mental health of student-athletes (and athletes in general, for that matter). As a student-athlete myself and an aspiring sport psychologist, I know all too well what it’s like to feel the pressures of having to balance school, athletics, and a social life while also being expected to excel equally in each of these areas. Don’t get me wrong, being a student-athlete is one of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever and will ever encounter, but it is also hard. Really hard. Student-athletes are almost always associated with physical health and physical health alone: Are they in shape? How fast can they run a 40 yard dash? Are they tall enough, strong enough, skilled enough to play professionally? It’s almost as if mental health is nonexistent in student-athletes when, in reality, student-athletes suffer from mental health problems just as much as their non-athlete peers. So why is it that there is such a stigma surrounding student-athletes and their mental health? For example, when players aren’t playing in a game for “personal reasons” (maybe they’re going through a hard time in life or they're stressed out), they are oftentimes mocked, criticized, or perceived as “weak”. It could be that student-athletes are also unaware of these symptoms that affect their performance because they themselves are told to prioritize and focus only on their physical health. But this is where the education and awareness needs to step in. Student-athletes are people too and it is easy to forget that, especially when you’re watching your favorite college teams play on the television every Saturday. It’s easy to forget that a lot of those kids are only 18-22 year olds. It’s easy to forget that there is so much more going on in each of their lives than what you see on the court or field. While tragedies like Hilinski’s open up the floodgates for discussing these important topics, it will more than likely just be a wave that comes and goes. Pretty soon, the world won’t be talking about mental health of student-athletes anymore until the next big story erupts and pretty soon the millions of spectators that watch athletes for pure entertainment every week will completely forget that athletes are more than the jerseys they put on. So my challenge for you, the one reading this article, is to go out and keep talking. It doesn’t need to be about student-athletes specifically, but keep talking about mental health. It’s not okay that our world deems it appropriate to talk about these issues for a couple of days only when our favorite athletes, actors, or singers end their own life. These issues are happening all around the world and every single day. In order to bring more awareness to student-athletes and mental health, we first must start with bringing more awareness to mental health in general. So please keep talking. Please keep looking out for each other. And remember: it’s okay not to be okay, no matter who you are.

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