Athletes with mental health issues fight the stigma

Ending the North East Conference's annual Mental Health Awareness Week with a photograph of the representative athletes in front of New York Institute of Technology's President's Field.

By Xian Wornell & Caitlyn Mcdufee

Just days after 9/11 at Twin Lakes Preserve in Wantagh, Long Island, a mother, newly widowed, scoured  for the right words to tell her three children–their father had died.

“She said four words I will never forget…daddy died, daddy’s gone,” Ryan Sliwak said.

Last week was the Second Annual East Coast Conference Mental Health Awareness Week. Sliwak, the founder of Athletes for Humanity, was invited to speak to the lacrosse teams at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT)  before the games on April 6.

Ryan shared his own personal struggles with depression and grief from the loss of his father to a room filled with 52 collegiate athletes. “I have no idea what’s going on, I just know I don’t have a dad. I don’t understand what grief is, I don’t understand how my life is going to be different. I just know I needed something to latch on to and for me that was baseball.”

Throughout Ryan’s baseball years at school, his anger kept coming back. He was diagnosed with depression, but that didn’t affect his performance on the field until he got to college. He recalled feeling ashamed of his struggles with mental health because he thought it would make him appear weak, when athletes are supposed to be tough.

“I think Ryan’s story is one of those stories that really opens your eyes to mental health awareness,” NYIT lacrosse player Brian Jockers said.  “When he was explaining how the stigma of mental health made him reluctant to get help, I believe a lot of the athletes in the room understood that feeling, regardless if we needed help or not.”

Nearly a quarter of division I athletes, and largely female athletes, have reported having depressive symptoms, according to a 2016 study by Drexel University.

The NYIT bears and the Molloy lions women’s lacrosse team wore t-shirts sporting their bright green logo “stop the stigma” during their warm ups. The logo promoting acceptance of mental health struggles on and off the field.

Coaches really need to start evaluating their team members individually and giving them chances to speak about any issues that they may have, head coach for NYIT’s women’s lacrosse team, Kerry Handras, said.

“My team knows my door is always open and I am here for them,” Handras said, “It’s not a sign of weakness on the field when you have internal struggles.”

Mental Health affect more than the the player’s performance on the field, it affects their job performance, their school work, and relationships. Director of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, James M. Paci MD, said. “They can also be life threatening,  because of all of these things student athlete mental health must be a priority on every college campus.

Opening up to his coaches, Ryan’s younger brother, Kyle, during his time at Hofstra University about his struggles with mental health at the end of his freshman season. He was cut from the team the fall of his sophomore year.

“A lot of coaches don’t really talk about mental health,” Kyle said. “They will mention it but they will never go full through with it. They see a lot of us as an athlete but not as a human being as well.”

About Xian Wornell 2 Articles
He is a a Multidisciplinary student at Stony Brook University. He focuses in journalism, creative writing and english, as well as, minoring in writing and rhetoric. Xian looks to further his education in higher education in graduate school.