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Mental Health for Athletes: An Essential Guide

Learning how to talk about about mental health can save team members' lives.

Key points

  • Almost 60 percent of children and adolescents, and nearly 40 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24, play sports.
  • Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 35.
  • Talking about mental health reduces stigma and increases help-seeking behavior.
Talking about mental health can help.
Source: Fotokitas/DepositPhoto

There is no better time than Mental Health Awareness Month for athletes to familiarize themselves with prioritizing mental health; doing this can impact not only your overall wellness but also has a positive impact on the lives of your teammates. The Department of Health and Human Services said almost 60 percent of children and adolescents play sports and Harvard School of Public Health reported that about 40 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 play sports. This is important because, sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among people ages 10 to 34. But there is hope for change, according to researchers, talking about mental health decreases stigma and increases help-seeking behavior.

Mental wellness can be strengthened with time and practice. The following guide can help you understand basic aspects of mental health with the goal of strengthening your skills so that you can feel more comfortable talking with your teammates, a trusted friend, and even a licensed counselor.

What Is Mental Health?

Mental health is our ability to function well in our day-to-day activities, maintain healthy relationships, respond well to difficulties, and have a sense of control over our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. People with stable mental health experience a range of emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, shame, and pride, for example—and have ups and downs in life. Emotions are not good or bad; emotions tell us that we are responding to something around us and stability means that we can move through life’s joys and challenges in productive ways.

What Is Mental Illness or a Mental Health Condition?

A mental illness or mental health condition is a medical diagnosis that involves identifying when people’s emotional, cognitive (thoughts), or behavioral reactions interfere with their day-to-day lives and responsibilities. The medical diagnosis is based on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Both the DSM and ICD update their diagnostic criteria when new research is available. Examples include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideations. The intensity of one’s symptoms can fluctuate and the degree to which symptoms interfere with one’s life can also fluctuate.

What Is the Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness?

We all experience stress and problems in life and react differently based on our life experiences, worldview, and emotional capacity. You can think of mental health on a continuum ranging from the best you can feel on one end, to complete despair on the other. When we feel well, we can move through life’s challenges easier (that’s not to say it will always be easy, but it is easier than for people who are experiencing mental illness). When we do not feel well, what once was a simple thing, like getting out of bed and taking a shower, can seem impossible.

The main difference between mental health and illness is how our problems interfere with our ability to function in life. When we feel mentally healthy, we have the capacity to take on problems with a clear mind and with regulating emotions. When we feel mentally ill our thought processes and emotions interfere with our ability to manage problems and stress.

Can the Same Person Experience Both Mental Health and Mental Illness?

Yes. We each define what mental health means in our own lives. We know what it feels like when we are at our best. Sometimes it is harder to identify mental illness in our own lives. For example, when we experience tragedy, such as a loved one dying, it is very common to feel intense sadness, grief, depression, and a sense of emptiness. As time passes, some people feel better, some people cycle through phases of feeling better and feeling grief, and others feel worse as time goes on and have a hard time working through their emotions related to the loss.

Because feelings of wellness exist on a continuum, it is helpful for people to know their general state of wellness so that they can be aware of circumstances that might tip them towards feelings of illness (stress, burnout, and apathy are examples). A licensed counselor can help you gain an understanding of your inner world so that you can develop skills that will help you navigate life’s ups and downs. A licensed counselor can also diagnose mental health problems and talk with you about ways to help alleviate symptoms.

What Does Learning About Mental Health Have to Do With Sports?

When athletes understand mental health concepts, they can take steps to gain a deeper understanding of how their emotions and thought processes impact their sports, decisions, and personal lives. Taking time to talk with a licensed counselor when we are well will help us build the skill set to identify potential problems in different ways and allows us to understand our teams in different ways, too. Knowing that a teammate pays attention to their mental health and wellness can encourage others to talk about their own challenges. This can build trust and cohesion within a team.

A few ways teams can share messages related to mental health include inviting a licensed mental health counselor to speak to the team on important matters a few times a year and having a list of ways that your team members can locate licensed counselors in your area. Opening these discussions can help demystify mental health.

What’s Next?

I encourage you to have open conversations about wellness and mental health with your teams. This discussion is not meant to ask your teammates to publicly share their mental health concerns, rather, it is meant to discuss topics that might impact your team. Examples include the impact of fluctuating confidence, burnout and stress, social stress, substance use, and abuse. These factors all impact performance so it is easy to explain why these discussions can be helpful among teams.


Edmonds, Craig, L. L., Christopher, R., Kennedy, T. D., & Mann, D. T. Y. (2021). Adolescent athletes and suicide: A model for treatment and prevention. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 101580–.

Hedegaard H, Curtin SC, Warner M. Suicide Rates in the United States Continue to Increase. NCHS Data Brief. 2018 Jun;(309):1-8. PMID: 30312151.

Lindow, Hughes, J. L., South, C., Minhajuddin, A., Gutierrez, L., Bannister, E., Trivedi, M. H., & Byerly, M. J. (2020). The Youth Aware of Mental Health Intervention: Impact on Help Seeking, Mental Health Knowledge, and Stigma in U.S. Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(1), 101–107.

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