March 25, 2017

Collegiate athletes continue their careers while living with mental illness

Kayla Dye knew when her father died of cancer it would take a personal toll, but she never knew it would affect her athletic career. Dye was in the process of finishing her basketball season in middle school when her dad passed, but she wanted to push on.

  “I can’t do anything about it, I am in basketball season,” Dye said. “I have to stay focused.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) declared mental health one of its top concerns. Brian Hartline, the institution’s chief medical expert, addressed members of the NCAA at an annual meeting and expressed the need for mental health screenings on top of physical ones.

Dye, who plays on the Webster women’s soccer team, said she did not understand at first, but her father’s battle with cancer was causing issues on the field as well.

  “I started getting really angry, I didn’t realize it myself,” Dye said. “One of the other dads I was close with approached me and talked to me about it. I never thought it affected me like that.”

  Dye  was diagnosed with depression three  years after her father’s death. She was  prescribed medicine, but does not take it during the soccer season because it changes her game. Dye said during those times, it is hard because she does get depressed and sometimes quitting seems like a better  option.

  “You get to the point where you just don’t want to play,” Dye said. “I have to keep reminding myself I do want it. [My dad] would want me to.”

  Dye recognizes keeping her emotions back and not talking about her depression is hard. Sometimes, she needs to communicate with teammates and coaches, who can help lift you up. Dye said sharing and talking about her experience helps her depression and urges athletes to talk to teammates or coaches if they are battling mental health issues.

  Teammate Alli Ferguson  tried to raise awareness about the issue of mental health in student athletes. During Division III Athletic Week last year at Webster, Ferguson gave a presentation about the concerns this issue raises.   

Ferguson, who deals with anxiety, wanted to reach out to show other athletes it is okay to admit something is wrong and to not keep your emotions to yourself.

  “As a competitor you don’t want to admit it to yourself that you’re having issues,” Ferguson said. “You’ve been training so hard for everything you’ve worked for. When your mind’s not thinking the way you want it to think, that’s really hard to accept.”

Ferguson said the biggest part of the presentation was for athletes and in general, anyone who needs help,  to know they are not alone in facing mental health issues. Ferguson said there is always someone out there willing to listen.

“Sometimes people need to be reassured that they have support,” Ferguson said. “As coaches and as teammates and as trainers and as counselors, anyone in the athletic department, are here to listen.”

  Ferguson made clear the fact she wants student athletes facing these issues to find the right ways to deal with depression and  anxiety. Ferguson said she does not want athletes to resort to other methods in order to cope with their mental health.

  “It’s important to stress getting help through talking, counseling or support,” Ferguson said. “Rather than resorting to violence, drugs or alcohol. Things that may make you feel better for a moment but long term have a detrimental effect.”

  Webster strength and conditioning coach Matt Saitz said he thinks communication is a big deal and always tries to get this  point across to athletes. Saitz said the mental factor of athletics  can affect athletes physically if they do not  speak out.

  “Within the first week I try to get the point across if you’re not telling me everything that you’re feeling as far as sleep the night before, have you missed meals, how are classes going, those things factor into our training component,” Saitz said. “All those things will affect someone’s physical ability.”

  Saitz said he dictates the intensity of training based on high-stress moments during the semester such as midterms and finals. 

  “I understand training isn’t the only thing that these kids are doing, they aren’t professional athletes,” Saitz said. “There are so many other external factors that play into this that can affect the mental state.”

  Patrick Stack, a member of Webster’s Student Counseling and Life Development Staff, urges balance when it comes to student athletes and mental health. Stack said in general, students make choices and sacrifices when it comes to balancing their time, and it is an important learning experience.

  “Balance is a skill, and that’s very important for people to realize,” Stack said. “And because it’s a skill, it’s something you can improve upon.”

  Stack said he believes the stigma of seeing mental health as a flaw in athletics is changing dramatically. Stack said the younger generation has contributed to diminishing the idea a mental disability equates to physical weakness.  This is partly due to their willingness to speak out.

  “I believe it has been changing radically,” Stack said. “Athletes are very willing to receive services. I am not seeing it as stringent as it was when I started here 29 years ago.”

For student athletes like Dye and Ferguson, this news is encouraging, but they are still determined to encourage athletes with mental health issues to seek help.

Dye, who scored the winning goal in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference  tournament final, said she does not  know what her dad would think about her depression, but knows he is still cheering her on.

  Dye said she always looks up after making a mistake or scoring a goal, motioning to her dad. Dye said her father was probably extremely excited about her game winner against Fontbonne.

  “I think he was probably just as loud as everyone in the stands,” Dye said.

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