A silent foe: how athletes have handled anxiety, depression during the pandemic

ASU athletes Robbi Ryan and Maddy Hunter detail their struggles and triumphs over anxiety

More Americans have reported signs of anxiety and depression since the onset of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, according to the Census Bureau. Many have self-isolated to stay safe, but such actions have taken a negative toll on some people's mental state. 

For some athletes, this has been compounded with the loss of a fundamental part of their lives: sports.

The NCAA surveyed over 37,000 student-athletes where “a majority of participants reported experiencing high rates of mental distress since the outset of the pandemic.” Over 40% of participants also felt a lack of motivation. 

“The sad thing is people live like that even when we're not in a pandemic,” said Robbi Ryan, a former women’s basketball guard.

Ryan revealed her struggles with mental health including anxiety and depression in May after graduating from ASU. In her story, she referenced her anxiety and depression as her “biggest competitor.” 

Mental health for athletes is an off-the-court matchup many hesitate to speak on for the fear of appearing weak. Mental "toughness" can often take precedence over psychological health. 

“Growing up, I never wanted to show that I was hurt or tired,” Ryan said. “I didn’t want to be the weak link. That mindset as an athlete definitely translated over to all areas of my life.” 

Yet, admitting one’s struggles is the strongest thing an athlete can do, Ryan said. 

Not just losing sports, but a coping mechanism

One of the pandemic’s consequences left many athletes without their daily coping mechanisms. 

Maddy Hunter, a senior lacrosse midfielder, temporarily lost that mechanism when she injured her knee freshman year. Hunter said she finally confronted her anxiety when the everyday rush settled down. 

At her breaking point, she finally accepted her heightened emotions. She said she didn’t know what anxiety was; she thought feeling constantly worried was normal. 

“People shy away from it, because it might be scary and they don't want to face it,” Hunter said. 

Lead psychologist of Sun Devil Athletics Jayme Shelton explained that every emotion and thought athletes had is now emphasized and saturated since the onset of the pandemic, she said.

In times of stress, people fall into habits that help alleviate that feeling. Athletes, particularly, in college deal with a tremendous amount of high-pressure situations, so they understand how to adapt in tough circumstances. 

Those habits usually include playing their designated sport. Student-athletes’ identities are tied closely to school and sport, and that connection snapped a few months ago, Shelton said.

“Athletes are so attuned to their physical shells,” Shelton said. “They're going to be aware when their body is adjusting to stress, because they know what it feels like.”

ASU Counseling Services director Erin Trujillo noticed an uptick in athletes speaking more openly about the emotions of losing sports. She sees the candidness on the path to destigmatizing discourse regarding mental health.

“It is normal to feel a great sense of loss, and have an emotional reaction to, for example not finishing your spring season,” Trujillo said. 

After the virus began to spread nationally in March, Sun Devil Athletics, and eventually the rest of college sports, canceled subsequent competitions. That included Hunter’s junior season and Ryan’s last NCAA Tournament. 

Hunter also lost her father this past year. For her, a strong anxiety trigger involves worrying about her family’s security. Peeling back the layers of that trauma familiarized her with loss. 

“I know what the grieving process looks like,” Hunter said. “I think now people are grieving (for) their sports and the normal that they're used to.”

Building support systems

Hunter noted that her coaching staff has been very supportive and willing to help with her anxiety as well as coping with the recent loss of her father. They told her she doesn’t have to put on a brave face and tough things out every day.

“That's the only thing a coach can do right now,” Trujillo said. "There are no recruitment trips or drawing up gameplans. A coach’s main job right now is checking on their players." 

Ryan finally addressed her depression because team trainers and doctors encouraged her to seek help. Head coach Charli Turner Thorne helped Ryan through the process by sending her book recommendations or giving support after a tough practice. Ryan said Thorne never questioned her or thought she was exaggerating. 

“She did everything in her power to try and help me,” Ryan said. “That's something I'll be forever grateful for.”

Shelton highlighted the importance of a support system and community. Sometimes just making a one-time phone call to a counseling service to discuss and navigate the current climate is enough to help someone.

ASU offers counseling services to all its students. Trujillo said they have managed to uphold their same-day service to speak with a counselor. The University provides 24/7 access for its services paired with other resources to help students. 

The sport psychology division equips athletes with a holistic approach, Shelton said. It takes into account the levels of stressors unique to college athletes, such as training and performance. Ryan recounted a life coach visited the team and provided players tools to handle adversity. 

Shelton said normalizing these conversations, especially among athletes, is influential. Athletes who have spoken out on the topic, such as Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, not only have promoted the significance of mental skills to compete but also advocated for clinical support. 

“I think the more exposure we have, the more education and the more clarity on what services can entail, the more likely it is to be helpful for the population," Shelton said.

Slow down and stay present

Ryan said the extra time in quarantine forced many to slow down and reflect. Sitting with one’s thoughts, and dealing with it, is scary, she said. 

Hunter noted the importance of being present, saying it’s helped her reflect and handle obstacles. 

After her father passed, Hunter recalled sitting for a while in her apartment with her roommate for support and letting every emotion rise and fall. It was a cathartic moment where she felt present. That’s where she aims to stay. 

Normalizing discussions around mental health is paramount to Hunter. She stressed the importance of being honest with each other. She has spoken to multiple athletes across ASU since the pandemic hit. She said each of them has reflected on their mental health in different ways. 

Both Hunter and Ryan said they’ve handled the pandemic relatively well because they previously confronted their mental health. It’s an individualized experience, but having a grasp on it allowed them to float in the current, while other student-athletes may have trouble escaping. 

When the worst of it is over, Ryan hopes to see a change in the way people treat themselves and their minds and in turn how they treat and love one other.

“I don't think we should return back to our normal,” Ryan said.

Reach the reporter at asubhan1@asu.edu.

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