Healthy Roster Mental Health Series
The Athlete Perspective
To coincide with Healthy Roster’s launch of SAFE Athlete, sports medicine’s first active mental health screening and alerts platform, we’ll be featuring a series of mental health related articles and personal stories.
In this installment, one of our team members shares his own mental health journey from an elite high school athlete struggling with mental illness to a young adult addressing his mental health effectively.
I still remember all of my pre-race rituals. It started out simple, with my first race in seventh grade. I had to count in my head from one to 15 and swallow three times between the on your mark and the gunshot. By my first high school race, these small compulsions had escalated into an elaborate routine across the 24 hours leading up to the race.
I broke my foot my junior year. When I found out, my first emotion was relief. Although I enjoyed going out on long Sunday trail runs or struggling with my teammates through seemingly endless pre-dawn fartleks that crossed the entire length of our town, the races filled me with dread. Once the anxiety from racing and dependence on rituals eclipsed the value I found in running, I started to hate my favorite activity. By the end of my junior year of high school, I stopped running completely.
I didn’t get back on the track until my junior year of college, when I started going to Exposure and Response Prevention therapy after being diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). ERP challenges its participants to use a goal-driven approach to improve mental health outcomes. For example, my therapist had me make a hierarchy of activities I avoided and gave each one a SUD value (subjective units of distress) for how anxious I was about doing that thing without engaging in compulsive behavior. Every week, I assigned myself a set of increasing-SUD value activities. To assess the impact of this stressful treatment system, I made a Google Form version of the PHQ-9 that I filled out every day at 9 PM. I used it for over a year.
The data I collected from that Google Form helped me to identify overarching trends in my mental health. Once I finished my ERP hierarchy, I started making wellness-focused lifestyle changes, such as changing my sleep hygiene and running again. I used the form to see if these changes had any impact on my scores. Over months of medication, therapy, and lifestyle efforts, I watched my anxiety scores decrease and my love of running return.
I was inspired to use a data-driven approach for my wellness strategy because it reflected the way I developed my mile strategy for track. I used Baum’s Page to track other milers’ times and race footage to make sure my racing strategy reflected the running styles of my opponents. In both wellness and competitions, I made sure that my approach to the challenge reflected as complete a knowledge as possible about what I was taking on.
Being a part of SAFE Athlete is meaningful to me, because it is based around data-driven methods to help healthcare professionals and athletic staff support student-athletes. I hope that with strong metrics and trained adults, other students will be able to maintain their mental health and their athletic pursuits without feeling like they have to choose one or the other.
If you need to talk to someone immediately, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US from the Crisis Text Line.