Kai McClelland: I’m a college athlete. Because of the mental health stigma, I almost wasn’t.

When I was 11, I ran my first 5k. When I was 14, I ran my first half marathon. And by the next year, I was on my high school’s varsity cross-country team, beginning my college recruitment process. 

Then I developed a chronic gastrointestinal illness. 

The problem started in my brain, but I failed to seek help. My experience is far from uncommon. Mental health stigma impacts many athletes, from the Olympians you see on TV, to NCAA Division III runners like myself, to even high schoolers. Although an estimated 10-15% of college athletes experience mental health issues warranting treatment, research has found that they are hesitant to utilize services for them. Many studies have pointed to stigma as a reason why. 

Earlier this year, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka shed light on this issue by courageously exiting two of the largest athletic competitions in the world. They demonstrated a skill that we do not encourage enough in athletes: knowing when to stop. 

For me, that skill would have prevented it all. 

I’ve had depression and anxiety for my entire life. However, compared to physical illnesses, neither problem felt “real” enough to warrant treatment, let alone stepping back or taking a break. Even if I had needed treatment, asking for help would have felt like admitting defeat. So I did what many other athletes did. I suffered in silence. 

Then I started throwing up. A few months of intensifying symptoms came to a head in May of 2019, when I was hospitalized. It was related to stress, doctors told me. 

The significance of my mental health only became clear to me once it had become a physical problem. I finally knew it was time to stop, take it easy, and take a break. But the damage had already been done. 

My condition is chronic. It has no cure. While I have recovered a great deal since my hospitalization and have gone on to compete in college athletics, the medical turmoil I experienced over the past few years was preventable. The stigma surrounding mental health in athletics nearly broke me. If we don’t stop it now, it could break someone else. 

Athletes need to know that reaching a mental health limit is just as serious as reaching a physical one. Nobody should feel like their mental health isn’t enough of a reason to seek help. Biles and Osaka have done the thing we need the most right now, which is demonstrating that mental health limits are valid.

Coaches, parents, and athletes themselves can raise greater awareness by changing the way they talk about mental health. This talk has to be frequent, attentive to the equal value of mental and physical health, and encouraging. By frequently engaging in conversation about mental health, the significance of it can become established. By giving attention to both mental and physical health —taking care of the brain as much as aches and pains —athletes can see the equal value of how the two work in tandem. By making sure that conversation surrounding mental health is respectful and encouraging, these allies can make athletes feel safe seeking help.  

That’s what my coach did for me. Two years after my hospitalization, I was still dealing with flare-ups of my illness. I was burnt out. And if I was going to continue into collegiate athletics, I needed a season off. Yet my mental health concerns still didn’t feel real enough to warrant it. I didn’t have a reason to stop. 

I texted my coach. Her response came a minute later. 

“Burnout is very real. It can be hard to take seriously, but the only things that will help it is rest and/or a change. So then the question becomes: what do you need?”

At that moment, I realized I already had my reason to take a break. 

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