From the fans who cheer at every game to the praise that follows every win, the benefits that come with playing sports make the lives of athletes seem lucky and, sometimes, even enviable. But despite the charmed appearances, more athletes are suffering from mental illnesses today than in the past. Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt, however, is working to change that.
Earlier this month, Schmitt spoke about the growing threat of mental illness with athletes, coaches and trainers at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A longtime activist for greater mental health recognition and education, Schmitt tailored her talk around her own struggle with depression.
Developing after the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Schmitt’s depression slowly worsened until 2014, when actor Robin Williams committed suicide. As a fan of Williams’ work, Schmitt said his death disappointed and shocked her. It also led her to consider taking her own life since news reports later revealed that Williams had been battling depression, as well.
“Nobody wants to show weakness,” Schmitt said during her talk. “And especially, no athlete wants to show weakness to their competitors. A lot of us look at [mental illnesses] as weaknesses.”
Schmitt said that perception kept her from telling others about her pain. Her hesitation changed, however, after her 17-year-old cousin, April Bocian, committed suicide in 2015. Determined to prevent additional deaths due to mental illnesses, Schmitt admitted to her friends, her family and the media that she had been battling depression.
But after Schmitt came forward about her struggle, the number of athletes suffering from mental illnesses increased, not decreased. In fact, researchers from the Georgetown University Medical Center found in 2013 that about 17 percent of college athletes exhibited signs of depression. Yet, three years later, researchers at Drexel and Kean universities reported that that number had risen to almost 25 percent.
While it’s true that Schmitt didn’t cause the 8-percent jump by publicly acknowledging her struggle, the coincidence did offer some insight. Specifically, mental illness among athletes was a growing issue, and the decision to share one person’s experience wouldn’t solve it.
So Schmitt changed her approach, transforming herself from a victim to an advocate for people – and, in particular, athletes – coping with mental illnesses.
“It’s OK to ask for help,” she started saying at talks, including the one at Saint Francis. “Seeing a psychologist and speaking about it is one of the tools we humans can use.”
Still, as Schmitt embraced her mantra that “It’s OK to not be OK,” she understood doubts about the legitimacy of mental illness would pose another challenge. According to a recent Pew poll, two-thirds of respondents considered mental illness “an extremely or very serious health problem,” meaning that one-third didn’t. To combat that resistance, Schmitt began using her reputation as an Olympian to her advantage.
“I’d never go up to someone and say I was in the Olympics,” she said. “But if it’s about mental health, and I can use that platform for mental health and to de-stigmatize the negativity around it, I’m willing to do that.”
So far, Schmitt’s strategy seems to be working. Since opening up about her own battle, other Olympic swimmers, including Michael Jamieson and Greg Louganis, have gone public with theirs. And while the Olympians’ renown helps call attention to athletes’ mental health issues, accelerating effort to solve them, Schmitt adds that it also yields other benefits in the meantime.
“I can relate to athletes really well,” Schmitt said. “That helps me speak about it, and I hope it helps to relate to me and know they’re not going through anything alone. Other people are going through the same, or similar, things.”
Mental health issues can be complicated, not only because of the numerous illnesses that exist but also because of the many factors that can contribute to them, especially for athletes.
For a discussion of some of them, check out the video below: