Mental health has been a hot-button issue in sports the past few years. Dating back to 2017, when Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward Kevin Love stepped away from his team after a panic attack suffered in the middle of a game, we’ve started seeing more athletes either take a stand in support of people with mental health issues and/or suffer ones of their own. The latest mental health story in the world of sports revolves around Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley.
In his first season as his team’s No. 1 option in the passing game, Ridley was not quite living up to expectations to start the season. He recorded 27 receptions through four games, but only 255 yards, and just one score. In Week 5, with his team scheduled to take on the New York Jets in London, Ridley was mysteriously held out of the contest due to a “personal matter.” It was unclear what this personal matter was until last week, when Ridley announced he’d be stepping away from football to focus on his mental health.
As was the case when Simone Biles stepped down from the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics team for mental health reasons, people were quick to criticize Ridley for what appeared to be him “giving up” on his team midseason.
Now, obviously, us outsiders to the situation don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on or how mental health issues can actually impact an athlete’s performance and/or psyche. So, I turned to an expert. Dr. Rebecca Busanich is an Associate Professor of Exercise and Sports studies at St. Catherine University. She has a Ph.D. in Sport Exercise and Psychology and has spent her years researching the social and cultural narratives around physical activity and studying the ways in which sociocultural positions impact mental health.
When asked about whether or not mental health can impact an athlete’s ability to perform, Dr. Busanich said, “It has a huge effect. Think of health as the foundation for performance. Without positive health across all dimensions, you will not be able to thrive in any element of your life.”
Mental health in athletes has become so stigmatized due to the uber-masculine “no pain, no gain” mantra inherent in many sports. Despite the general stigma around mental health struggles seemingly fading, athletes can still find it hard to come forward with their problems. According to Athletes for Hope, in 2019, approximately 33 percent of all college students suffered some sort of mental health issue, and only 30 percent of that 33 percent sought out help. That number dropped to just ten percent among college athletes though. That’s what makes stories of athletes struggling with mental health from people like Love, Michael Phelps, and former USC volleyball player Victoria Garrick so important. It helps break the narrative that athletes need to stay tough.
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“I am grateful to the athletes who are openly discussing their struggles and advocating for themselves in a public format.This will get others talking and will help people to realize they are not alone in their own struggles – and maybe it will encourage them to speak up and ask for help when they need it.”
The idea that most athletes of yesteryear wouldn’t have succumbed to something like mental health issues is true, but that’s only because of the narrative surrounding mental health in those days. There’s a reason that so many professional athletes from decades ago have suffered serious mental health issues and substance abuse problems in retirement — partly because of life after the sport, but also due to the lack of treatment players would get for mental health problems while playing.
Mental health is easy to overlook in athletes. This bolsters the idea that there could be more athletes struggling with mental illness than we currently see, and with such a recent emphasis on player safety and well-being from leagues like the NFL and NBA, it’s astonishing that mental health has remained an overlooked aspect of their sports.
“We don’t question if an athlete is injured or sick, and we know how best to treat injuries and illnesses for the most part,” Busanich said. “When it comes to mental health, it can be difficult to see or know when something is wrong. We don’t have great ways of measuring it or even treating mental health issues. And in sport, where the mentality is to push through the pain and suffering, there is a danger that athletes may feel even more pressure to silence or cover up their mental health struggles.”
When asked whether or not Ridley’s underwhelming performance at the beginning of the season could have had an impact on his decision to step away, Busanich said “If performance is an important aspect of an athlete’s self-concept, which for many elite athletes it is, then when they don’t perform well or under-perform according to their own standards, this will negatively affect their self-concept. This in turn can negatively impact one’s mental health.”
In an age of social media, where hurtful comments directed at a player can be found around every corner, it’s even harder to find self-worth for several top-tier athletes when they aren’t performing to the expectations placed on them by fans and the media. It’s part of the reason that Los Angeles Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert has stayed off of social media since college. He saw the criticism that his backup Braxton Burmeister received when Herbert missed five games with a shoulder injury. “He’s not a guy that deserved that,” Herbert said. “Braxton is really good, and a great guy to have in your quarterback room. You hate to see him receive the criticism that he did.”
Of course, we often hear the argument that if an athlete truly loved their sport, they would not step away when facing mental health issues. Shouldn’t the sport they love help them overcome those issues? According to Busanich, poor performance from high-level athletes goes almost hand in hand with whether or not they should step away. “Research would tell us that it’s very important for athletes to have other passions in order to develop a self-concept that is multidimensional. This is because elite performance in one’s sport can’t last forever, and we know that athletes who transition away from sport and can fall back on other aspects of their self-identity will have much healthier outcomes.”
Ridley’s decision to step away was what he believed was best for his future, and in a sport where a lack of focus can result in a devastating injury that costs a player the remainder of his career, and potentially millions of dollars, it makes sense for him to step away from the Falcons. And if his mental health issues were hurting his team’s chances of winning, then actually, stepping away from football is the best thing he can do for the Falcons’ organization, too.
Mental health issues among young people are at an all-time high. “We are going through an unprecedented time in history, where there are a lot of things having a detrimental impact on mental health,” says Busanich, “a pandemic, increasing polarization and tensions both politically and culturally, rising social justice issues and violence, increasing pressure and spotlight on individuals from social media, etc. There is a lot of work to be done, at a social, environmental, cultural, and political level.”
Busanich went on to explain that there may not be a way to reduce the number of people facing mental health issues, but that there are ways to combat its effects. Aside from additional funding toward mental health research, Busanich believes that one of the best ways to help people suffering is to make mental health a “regular conversation around the dinner tables, classrooms, and athletic training rooms of America.”
You can dig at Ridley all you want for leaving his team in the middle of the season, but by bringing attention to his own mental health struggles, he’s potentially helping hundreds of athletes facing similar situations. That makes Ridley’s decision not just the right choice, but the only choice.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, here is a list of resources from the National Alliance on Mental Illness you can call for help.