Stigma of Mental Illness in Athletes

Many people wrongly assume that mental illness in athletes is rare.  Athletes appear very healthy physically, and so people assume that they must be healthy emotionally as well. Athletes may also be idealized, seemingly immune to problems. Additionally, athletes themselves often do not want to appear weak and may fear that seeking help for mental illness will make them appear that way.   

Here are some points to keep in mind if you or an athlete you know might be suffering from mental or emotional problems: 

Mental illness is common

Evidence suggests that athletes suffer from the same types of mental illness and at the same rates as the general population.  Being an athlete does not protect against depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. 

Not a weakness 

Mental illness is not a personal weakness.  Depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders are medical conditions that can be treated.  Just because you cannot see the problem on an X-ray or MRI does not mean it is not as “real” as physical injuries.   

Addressing confidence in sports

Athletes sometimes worry that admitting to emotional problems will make them feel less confident in their athletic abilities.  However, getting help for mental illness can help athletes to be MORE confident because they know they are taking care of themselves and getting the treatment they need. 

Challenges in sports

Athletes might be vulnerable to mental illness for a number of reasons. For example, the stress and pressure of performing and of being judged can lead to depression and anxiety.  Head injuries, suffered by many athletes in contact sports, can make some athletes up to four times more likely to experience depression. In addition, other injuries, chokes/slumps, problems getting along with teammates and coaches, overtraining, aging, and retirement from sport can also contribute to depression and anxiety in some athletes. 


Getting treatment for mental illness can allow athletes to recover and to continue or resume training and competition. 




For more information


National Alliance on Mentally Illness (NAMI)
Information Helpline:   800-950-NAMI (6264)