Maddy Holleran was a star athlete and brilliant student. She was beautiful, a cherished friend and seemed to have it all. Maddy was 19 when on January 17, 2014, she took a running leap off of a nine-story parking garage.
Maddy ran track at U Penn where she did well in both athletics and academics. But she struggled with the transition to college, division one athletics and to an entirely new environment. She was overwhelmed and, having been stripped of her support system, lonely. Maddy’s story is tragic but, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. What makes Maddy’s story stand out nationwide is the effect it has had on a national movement for better mental health services and awareness for student-athletes. Universities need to have better systems in place to accommodate the mental needs of student-athletes. Collegiate athletic programs should be more proactive in promoting emotional well-being and accommodating athletes needs.
To be a student-athlete requires incredible time management. From practices, workouts and games to their responsibilities as a full-time student, their days can be long and arduous. Collegiate athletic facilities have doctors and therapists for every bone and muscle to ensure that these athletes are physically fit to compete; where they lack is in the mental health department. Being mentally healthy is just as important as an athlete's physical well-being but is often overlooked.
When an athlete sprains an ankle they are immediately rushed in for x-rays, lineups are changed, athletic trainers are called and they are supported through the entire process of recovery. But what about an athlete struggling with depression? It can be easier to seek help for a sprained ankle than it is to seek help for anxiety or depression, illnesses that lie beneath the surface and are not visible through x-rays or CAT scans.
Addressing mental illnesses is difficult because athletes are trained to be tenacious and power through. There is a culture of ‘toughness’ that can inhibit athletes from wanting to seek help when they are struggling with their mental health. The NCAA conducted a survey recently showing that 30% of athletes reported feeling depressed at some point that year and close to 50% reported having feelings of anxiety. Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, Associate Professor, University of Michigan School of Public Health spoke about this survey stating that “One in three students experiences significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Yet only about 30 percent of those students seek help, and that number drops to 10 percent for student-athletes”. These numbers show us that there is a significant divide between students and athletes who need help and seek it.
There need to be more resources available for student-athletes combating mental illnesses. There should be counselors and assistance available in the athletic facilities, just as accessible as a physical therapist or athletic trainer. While student-athletes don’t deserve special treatment for mental health, providing accessible care will help break down the stigma around seeking help for mental illnesses as an athlete. If there were facilities specifically for mental wellness alongside traditional athletic facilities it would help with the larger problem; the idea that mental health is not as important as physical well-being.