It’s 3:25 pm on a crisp fall afternoon and the training room at the Smilow Field House is bustling. Three women’s soccer players are lined up on the treatment tables on one side of the room, interspersed with a handful of football players, all going through routine treatments to prepare their strained muscles or unstable joints for another grueling practice. One soccer player gets her recently-twisted ankle taped by a trainer; a football player leans back against the wall, a heating pad warming up his tender hamstring. Across the room on another set of tables, players with more serious injuries are receiving treatment — one unfortunate football player is unwrapping his knee brace to start physical therapy exercises to rehabilitate his torn ACL, a field hockey player lies stomach down with wires taped to her back to receive electric stimulation treatment. She does this every day to minimize back pain until after season when she can receive more long-term treatment. In the adjoining room, a few cross country players, back from a long run, groan as they step gingerly into ice baths.
None of these athletes are within their official training hours, and yet all of them are taking time out of their remarkably busy days to make sure their bodies are in as-peak-as-possible physical form so that they can perform to the best of their ability in practice and games.
As athletes, our bodies are our tools, our keys to success. Coaches understand this — even if it doesn’t seem like this in the wake of an exhausting conditioning session — and we are given the resources we need to keep our bodies healthy. The athletic department knows that in order to have a successful team, players need to be in ultimate physical condition, and so they provide us with resources geared towards ensuring physical health. While the Yale athletic training program is far from perfect, there is a concrete, funded effort to provide us with physical health care.
But once our bodies are functioning, once all joints are well-oiled and muscles perfectly stretched, we’re assumed to be completely healthy. Our health is quantified physically, our boxes checked according to what our bodies can and cannot do. It’s time our minds were given the same attention.
It goes without saying that mental health is an issue that needs to be examined across Yale’s campus. While no community should be prioritized in mental health care, athletes face different and specific challenges that require a unique approach. To assess the contradiction of great physical healthcare and lack of mental healthcare, I sent out an informal survey to Yale athletes from several different teams. More than 90% of respondents agreed that athletes at Yale experience unique mental health challenges, noting many reasons they believed this to be true. These included the time constraints placed on athletes, the pressure of having a certain body image, the “expectation of toughness, both mentally and physically,” the expectation to be “cool and effortless,” and how “the constant comparison to others at different levels of physical performance can be depressing.” While these factors can and do affect any number of students at Yale, the life of athletes leaves us particularly exposed to these issues. Days are a constant swirl of classes, work, and exams, paired with early morning lifts, daily practices (sometimes twice a day), and hours of travel for games. On top of this, athletes also juggle jobs, clubs, and social lives. Stress, at the very least, is inevitable, and this is assuming that the athlete is physically healthy, and happy with their playing experience. Athletes may not be playing as much as they would like, even after putting hours of their life into the sport, and if an athlete does suffer an intense physical injury, a huge part of their life is necessarily stripped away, or at least put on hold.
Yes, athletes are expected to be tough, physically and mentally. But even this presumption raises a paradox: despite the expectation of physical toughness, we still have access to a team of physical health specialists who encourage us to see them immediately following any injury, no matter how small. The expectation of mental toughness is not rewarded the same leniency. Access to mental health specialists is rarely encouraged and barely accessible. You’re having a bad day? You’re supposed to leave that out of practice, it has no place on the field. But what happens when it starts to affect your performance, and rather than receiving help, you’re punished with, for example, less playing time?
I would be remiss to not acknowledge the work Yale has done on campus and in the athletic department to support our mental health. There are indeed resources available for mental health issues, such as Mental Health and Counseling at Yale Health and Walden Peer Counseling. Next year, a student group is piloting mental health workshops for first years. However, the emphasis on and the accessibility of these resources is meager compared to the prominence of physical health resources for athletes. Indeed, more than 60% of survey respondents said they weren’t aware of Yale’s mental health resources — one explained why they wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking help for a mental health issue, writing that they feel like “it goes against the mental strength coaches constantly harp on.” Indeed, nearly half of all respondents said they did not feel as though their coaches have their best mental health in mind. One respondent noticed how their coaches “seem to always assume you are doing okay mentally,” while another noted that while their own coach seemed to have a good understanding of their mental health, “other coaches at Yale do a horrendous job of this and literally lead students to develop clinical levels of depression and anxiety.”
Just the other day, I noticed a new list pinned up to the wall of the training room at Smilow, entitled “Student-Athlete Mental Wellness at Yale,” which named several resources, including sports psychology and nutrition information, and an community safety alert app I had never heard of, Livesafe. As positive a step as this was, the paper troubled me. Why was this the first mention of athlete mental health I had heard of in my nearly two years at Yale? If this was coined as an issue to raise awareness of by the athletic department, why wasn’t more being done than posting an 8"x11" piece of paper to the wall? And why did I feel so uncomfortable walking up to it and taking a picture? Maybe I was being paranoid, and that people weren’t actually tracking me as I struggled to get a clear shot of the small list of resources with my phone. But the fact that it felt weird at all made me think about why the athletic community treats mental and physical health so differently.
Maybe it’s something about how we visualize health and quantify recovery. Physical injuries are usually easy to see. An ankle is blue and swollen —condition: sprained ankle; recovery plan: rest, ice, compress, elevate, ankle strengthening exercises; recovery time: a few weeks. MRI results show a tear in the knee — condition: torn ACL; recovery plan: surgery, then lots and lots of physical therapy; recovery time: six months at least. In these cases, there’s a foreseeable end date — after those five weeks, or those six months, you should be back to normal, maybe even playing in games. Mental health has no such reliability. You have been experiencing panic attacks — condition: anxiety? No, you’re probably just stressed, it’s midterm season. Wait, what if it’s more serious — is it depression, or a full-on anxiety disorder? No wait, you’re probably overthinking it; recovery plan: how are you supposed to recover if you don’t even know what happened? Recovery time: will they ever stop? Are they even real to begin with?
This difficulty in conceptualizing mental health surely adds to the stigma of seeking help. When no one is validating your experiences while, behind the scenes, your daily creed involves being tough, it’s no wonder a paper pinned to a wall encouraging athletes to actively seek help will likely have no effect at all.
I could end with a logical argument for why it’s in Yale’s best interest for athletes to have better access to mental health resources — our duty to our school is to win games, to take home championships and, just as we need our bodies in good shape to perform our best, athletes need to be happy and calm and unstressed (a.k.a in good mental shape) to perform our best. This doesn’t seem revolutionary to me.
But our mental health should be Yale’s concern even when it doesn't add more glitz to the trophy room. More championship rings would only be an added bonus to a healthier, happier Yale athletics community.
By Jane Buckley.