I’ve been sitting in Twins Coffee all afternoon, seeing a variety people filing in and out while I take down cappuccino after cappuccino. Many simply come in alone, and leave right away, whereas others sit down and stay for a while. I have no idea what is going on in their heads. Yes, some look happier than others, but many are simply needing their caffeine fix. Unfortunately, mental illness is one of those things that many people seem to think they need to hide from others and keep to themselves.
If you walk into the David E. Enarson building on campus, and make your way to the gymnasium, you will notice a blue bulletin board with a few handwritten messages on it. Included in these text-message-shaped boxes are phrases such as “YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” “You were given life because you are strong enough to live it,” and “EXERCISE IS GOOD FOR MENTAL HEALTH!” Issues in mental health affects countless people, and athletes are no different.
January 31st was “Bell Let’s Talk” day, which is aimed at reducing the stigma towards mental illness in society. On “Let’s Talk” day each year, Bell donates five cents each time one of their “Let’s Talk” videos is viewed on social media, every time the hashtag #bellletstalk is used on Twitter, each text and phone call made, and each time one of their themed Snapchat filters or Facebook photo frames are used.
As a result of the initiative, Bell has donated over $86.5 million since 2011 (and added another $6.92 million to that total this year!) to help people battling mental health issues, through various programs focused on assisting individuals, or paying for people to have access to individual help.
Mental illness is a massive issue in society today, and it is only amplified within the world of sport. Athletes are normal people that happen to be good at playing a sport. Just because they perform at an elite level on the field or court, does not mean that they have it all together beyond that. Yes, the poster claiming that exercise was beneficial for one’s mental health was correct, but sweating is not a panacea for mental health problems.
“I’d say it’s kind of a taboo topic within a competitive athletic environment, just because I think discussing it may be falsely perceived as a sign of weakness. As athletes, we are told to embody traits such as strength, resilience, ultra-confidence and ruthlessness,” Spartan soccer player Aidan Moore said when I asked him about mental health within athletics.
“The constantly intense and aggressive environment in combination with the time-consuming lifestyle of being a student-athlete makes it hard for an athlete struggling with a mental illness, as they have to suppress the way their feeling in order to keep up.”
If you have ever been on a sports team, I am sure you can relate. Wanting to put on a brave front and acting like you have it all together because what is important in that context is simply on-field performance.
Spartan track and field athlete Sophie Pauls added: “What people might not understand is that with so much pressure in athletics to perform and be ‘perfect,’ it can be the source of a lot of insecurity and shame. It is so important to stress that having these struggles does not make you weak, but by acknowledging that there are so many other athletes fighting the same battles, we can come alongside each other.”
Sports are not like your studies. You can fail a project or midterm and virtually keep it a secret from most people except the professor. As an athlete, your performance is constantly measured and the results are easily accessible for anyone who wants to know them. Of course these athletes are competitors, and want to do their best, but if their value is constantly measured by their athletic performance, it can seriously wear on an individual.
Spartan hockey player Lincoln Nikkel also added some input on the “Bell Let’s Talk” subject. “I see significant value in spreading awareness to athletes around the world. For many athletes, their lives can revolve mainly around our sport. It is easy
to put significant amounts of pressure on ourselves and neglect the repercussions of that pressure.”
“As an athlete, I appreciate the willingness of others offering to talk, and show support. On the team, and off the team.
We never know how others are doing unless we offer and present an environment of vulnerability and encouragement.
I see a hockey team as a place where the guys have an opportunity to get to know one another, and present a space where each player can feel comfortable being real and seeking the help they might need.”
This campus should be a safe space where people feel like they can share their mental health struggles. Some people just need someone to ask how they are really doing and have a caring, listening ear. Mental illness can be tricky to understand if you do not experience it much yourself. But, that does not mean you can just ignore it and simply tell people to get help and let the professionals deal with it.
Simply being there for someone who needs to talk about it can be more helpful than you know. If we can provide a safe environment where we can openly talk about our internal struggles and respond to each other with love, then we can truly connect with one another. Sophie called that being a “united team.”
— Bell Let's Talk (@Bell_LetsTalk) February 1, 2018