All athletes are familiar with injuries. You can sprain an ankle, break an arm or tear a ligament. You’re out for a few games or a season, rehabbing and taking care of your body. But what happens when that injury is invisible? How do you deal with it when the pain is within, unseen by fans, coaches or even teammates?
In the world of sports, a stigma has long surrounded mental health and athletes. Collegiate and professional athletes are expected to be calm under pressure, stoic in emotion and perform at the highest level week after week. However, no one is immune to the effects of poor mental health.
According to the World Health Organization, around 5% of adults suffer from depression. As of late, there’s been a rise in awareness of athletes struggling with their mental health. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley has stepped away from the NFL to focus on strengthening his mental health. Former Ole Miss Rebel A.J. Brown has opened up about his ongoing battle with depression and the importance of speaking up.
“Us as men, our feelings aren’t too much cared about,” Brown said. “Get things off your chest. It’s okay to talk to someone. Seek help. You have to take care of your brain just like you take care of your body.”
During the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, American gymnast Simone Biles removed herself from competition due to mental health issues and a gymnastic phenomena known as the “twisties.” Despite large amounts of harsh ridicule and criticism, what Biles did was the opposite of weakness. She prioritized her own mental well-being, safety and the greater success of her teammates.
Not only were the 2020 Olympics an unprecedented time when athletes had to balance the ongoing pandemic, Biles was also preparing for the trial against Larry Nassar. Nassar, the former team doctor for the United States women’s gymnastics team, was found guilty of sexual assault of minors and child pornography and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Biles has since been extremely outspoken on her struggles with mental illness and become a symbol of strength and hope for others.
The vulnerability displayed recently by professional athletes has shown that they’re human too, capable of experiencing everything the everyday person struggles with. This shift towards a de-stigmatization has opened doors to accepting struggles without labeling someone as weak.
Collegiate athletes are not immune to the struggle. When student-athletes are expected to balance their play, mental well-being and coursework, who do they turn to?
At the University of Mississippi, Josie Nicholson is a sports psychologist who has become a beacon of support for Rebel athletes who are facing the numerous pressures a college athlete deals with on a daily basis.
“Whatever an athlete brings in is where we go with it. Sometimes, their struggle is around their playing time, and that’s a really personal deal because they’ve dedicated their whole life to this,” Nicholson said. “They’ve had injuries that have been a challenge and a lot of athletes develop depression out of that, or they have a lot of anxiety around performance now because they’re trying to prove themselves.”
Nicholson offers support for athletes struggling with the mental side effects of injuries, diagnosed mental illnesses and general support for anyone in need.
“Sometimes those struggles go deeper, like their identity is completely wrapped up in their sport sometimes and now, they’re not playing, so they are feeling a sense of worthlessness and are struggling with their identity and their self esteem,” Nicholson said.
In the past two years, through COVID-19 and social unrest, mental health issues soared. During the pandemic, the number of adults who reported symptoms of depression and anxiety rose from 1-in-10 to 4-in-10, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. According to Nicholson, mental health struggles were being exacerbated.
“We’ve had this sense of isolation, disconnection and being aware of how uncertain everything is, and that’s created a lot of awareness around our mental health, especially when we were forced to slow down and didn’t have all these things to distract ourselves,” Nicholson said.
After playing college and professional soccer, Nicholson has gained a unique perspective into helping others like herself.
“If I had had that support (of a sports psychologist), I think my experience would have been way better, so I want to offer that to athletes so they can have a better experience,” Nicholson said.
Many athletic institutions have recently had their eyes opened to the reality of athletes struggling with their mental health. Because of this, Nicholson believes that mental health will soon be on par with physical health in terms of athletic priorities.
“If they’re not mentally healthy, they’re not going to perform well, and it can cause a lot of harm, so just like we’re going to be taking care of a sprained ankle, we’re going to be taking care of mental health,” Nicholson said. “Universities and colleges are hiring licensed mental health professionals who have performance enhancing experience. Once you take care of the whole person, they perform better.”
For Nicholson, being easily accessible to her athletes holds high value. Unlike other mental health resources on campus, Nicholson holds an open door policy and welcomes in all student-athletes. This allows her to form meaningful relationships in order to better these athletes off the field, so they can perform to their highest ability on the field.
“I love my job, it’s the best. I would say the relationships with the athletes (are the best part) because I get to see, hear and be with them in some of the most difficult times,” Nicholson said. “(I see) who they truly are while they’re trying to figure out who they are.”
Nothing is too small to talk about in Nicholson’s office. Surrounded by the calming sounds of the ocean and lounging on plush couches, Nicholson makes it clear that just because you can’t see it, doesn’t make it not important.