As I sit and reflect on this touching article published by FOX Sports and written by Justin Ching, I think about what may have altered, prevented, or limited my struggles with not only anxiety and depression, but anorexia in college. An article about mental health issues being a challenge for the NCAA in regard to student-athletes, it highlights different interviews with current student-athletes. A key finding from the interviews revealed that the majority of women pointed to eating disorders related to their sport as the top issue.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, women are “nearly twice as likely” as men to develop depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Add in the stress of sports related pressures and stressors and you have a dangerous combination. And this is exactly how my story began as a sophomore in college at Michigan State University. In retrospect, I was clearly overwhelmed by the amount of pressure I placed on myself athletically, academically, and socially. Perfection was the main goal, or, I guess, the only goal.
Ching stated it perfectly, “The pressures of women to gain muscle in training but stay thin to uphold a standard of beauty outside of sports is irreconcilable.” Inside the lines, there is immense pressure to be physically strong, fit, aggressive, and powerful. Outside the lines, the desire to be feminine, attractive, sexually appealing, and thin is the universal expectation and model a female student-athlete strives to portray. Obviously, the two figures could not be more contrasting, which results in personal psychological struggles as one attempts to fulfill, and conquer, both appearances.
I remember laying on the bench in the Michigan State weight room during a team lift. The challenge was to bench press our maximum output. I thought to myself, “This is crazy. I am not a body builder, I am a soccer player and a woman trying to keep somewhat of a feminine figure. If I bench press 180 pounds of weight, my arms will make me look like a muscular and defined man, and the extra bulkiness will make me feel like a new heavyweight champion who can not get to the ball because I lost all my speed and quickness. Obviously, this was not the goal of our strength team, but these are misconstrued thoughts of many female athletes.
ANAD, The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, declares that anorexia and bulimia have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. With this considerable statistic, and the rampant uprise in eating disorders among college athletes, why isn’t the topic discussed more, spoken about, or even brought to the forefront of college sports? Why was I being treated so aggressively with anorexia, but because of the horrific stigma that came with the label, it was not discussed among my friends, teammates, or other student-athletes along my side? Not only was it not discussed, but it was so private, that my teammates were informed I was overcoming an achilles tendon injury when they inquired or asked any questions.
Again, this article is completely accurate when it states there are resources that exist on a college campus and within an athletic department, and professionals that are readily available to identify, treat, and help student-athletes who battle such a disorder. The issue remains in the social stigma that an over-achiever, like myself, denies an issue, and the communication to student-athletes regarding who to contact, how to approach someone, and where to go if one is believed to be in trouble.
If we continue to raise awareness as a team, more individuals will be saved. The underlying issue will continue to linger until more actions toward education take place: not only to student-athletes, but coaches, sports medicine, and support staff.
Madison Holleran’s recent, tragic story is only one example of how horrific of an end it can be for a gifted, beautiful, and athletic star. Her story, among many others battling similar experiences, will hopefully bring light to the sincerity of the topic.