Elite Athletes And Mental Health Services

What should elite athletes know about therapy?

For many athletes, finding a therapist with an appreciation for the particular stressors of participating in high levels of sports can help alleviate the anxiety surrounding therapy. For example, professional athletes may want a therapist with expertise in one or more of the following areas: substance use, anxiety, psychological treatment of pain management, interpersonal conflicts, traumatic events, obsessive and compulsive tendencies, and developing coping strategies to alleviate stress.

Especially if you’re new to therapy, it might take a while before you feel comfortable opening up about yourself. However, having a safe environment to process feelings can make a significant difference in your mental well-being. Therapy can be a place where you do not have to “suck it up,” “push through the pain,” or “go all out,” but where you can be yourself without the pressure to perform. Even if your mental health problems are not directly related to your individual sport, therapy can help you navigate the transition, understand your mental health condition, and change your perception.

elite athletes and mental health NYC

Why Athletes Might Seek Help for Mental Health Issues

Historically, the mental well-being of professional athletes has been largely overlooked because of expectations. Long considered larger-than-life figures by the general public, athletes are revered for how they can stretch the limits of the human body and spirit, exercise endurance in the face of pressure, and give life and limb in the pursuit of excellence. Yet, this seemingly superhuman image leaves little room for vulnerability, let alone its open discussion in public discourse or the private therapy setting.

In recent years, athletes have started to discuss mental well-being and mental disorders more openly. Due to increased discussions about the topic, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) engaged in a large-scale research project in 2019 to better assess the mental health of Olympic Athletes. High-profile athletes such as Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Kevin Love, Brandon Marshall, and Hope Solo have put the spotlight on awareness of athlete mental health issues and advocated for athletes seeking mental health services.

The Prevalence of Mental Health Issues in Athletes

Because of the recent awareness of this issue, research and attention have only recently focused on the mental well-being of professional athletes. While research on athletes’ mental health issues is still nascent, some of the initial studies tell a distressing story.

In a 2011 study of French elite athletes taken from the Public Library of Science, it was determined that 17% of athletes had a current or recent mental health issue. Similar findings from a Swedish study in 2019 reported that more than half of athletes reported mental health problems over the course of their lifetime. In 2018, a meta-analysis featuring several thousand professional athletes demonstrated that a whopping 19% had problematic substance use and 34% had depressive/anxiety disorders. In comparison, the general population only has a 20% prevalence of any mental health disorder. Several of the studies do not even include some of the subclinical issues that athletes are burdened by on a regular basis, including burnout, somatic complaints, financial issues, physical health issues, and competitor conflicts.

Both in team sports and individual sports, athletes face a unique set of obstacles, ranging from incurring and managing severe physical and neurological injuries, holding a career with a much shorter life expectancy, problematic substance use, longstanding periods of isolation and loneliness, issues with maintaining relationships, problems coping with pressure, difficulty planning for the future, body image issues, exercise/workout addiction, discrimination due to race and ethnicity, and others.

Furthermore, being an elite athlete can often feel like a barrier toward finding and accessing healthcare—both physical and mental—as athletes often experience stigma in seeking healthcare. In fact, stigma was reported as the primary factor deterring athletes from seeking mental health services. Because a limited infrastructure remains for mental well-being in sports, and athletes find it difficult to connect with providers who deeply understand the particular challenges and pressures of being an elite athlete, the problem persists.

Whether you’re interested in seeking treatment for a mental illness or navigating mental health problems, here’s how to find the right therapist.

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How can elite athletes find a therapist?

The process of choosing a therapist is deeply personal, and it can also feel overwhelming. For many athletes living with mental health issues, asking for help can make it even harder.

Fortunately, increased attention on the mental well-being of athletes has made it easier than ever for athletes, teams, and organizations to seek out mental health resources. Finding the right therapist can help you find your own voice, practice mindfulness, and navigate your athletic performance or personal life issues.

This list is not exhaustive, but some helpful mental health resources for athletes include the following:

  • National therapist directories. National directories of mental health professionals can help you jumpstart your search. Psychology Today and the American Psychological Association (APA) feature national directories of mental health professionals with filters to narrow your search by the therapist’s identity, treatment modality, and other requirements.
  • United States Olympic and Paralympic Mental Health Services. Directories of therapeutic services can be found on the Olympic and Paralympic Mental Health Registry, while teletherapy services can be found through eHome Counseling Group, a confidential 24/7 hotline is available to Team USA domestically and internationally (+1-719-866-CALL), as well as the WellTrack™ and Headspace Plus apps.
  • Professional sports. Contact your governing body, team clinicians, support staff, sponsors, or players association for your sport for mental health services or resources. Some leagues or tours have partnered with mental health organizations such as Sporting Chance Clinic.
  • Online educational resources. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers an educational program (NAMI Provider) and support group resources for individuals with mental health conditions, including NAMI Family, NAMI Connection, NAMI Basics, NAMI Advocacy, and more. If you’re the parent of an adolescent or young adult experiencing mental health problems, NAMI Parents and the NAMI Family Support Group can provide valuable insight.
  • Helplines. If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for immediate support.

If you have any fellow athletes, team members, friends, or family members attending therapy, or if you are working with other clinicians or medical providers, consider asking them for a referral to a psychologist in your area. If you’re searching for mental health resources for adolescents or young adults, narrowing your search to include therapists who specialize in treating young people can help you find the right fit.

Additionally, with more and more providers in the U.S. offering teletherapy services during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more convenient than ever to access therapy from the comfort of your own home. Online therapy platforms like the Therapy Group of NYC offer virtual counseling services with counselors and psychologists specializing in elite athlete mental health issues.

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