(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Athletes at the highest level constantly strive to embody the Olympic motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” — faster, higher, stronger. Despite expectations, athletes are not machines. Ignoring their emotions, fears and overall mental health can affect an athlete’s ability to perform and live their lives outside of the sport. As more elite athletes open up about their mental health, experts at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center say a specialized combination of sport psychology and psychiatry is needed to provide comprehensive care addressing the unique mental challenges that athletes face at every level of competition.
“Having mental health professionals that are familiar with common sources of stress and anxiety for athletes is critical to helping them stay mentally well and also reach their goals as they progress in their sport,” said Dr. Joshua Norman, sports psychiatrist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. “It’s important that both sports psychiatrists and psychologists are part of that plan to combine a medical, evidence-based approach with psychotherapeutic exercises to reduce negative cognitions and work through challenging situations.”
Injuries are often a catalyst to anxiety, depression and substance abuse among athletes, and being removed from their training and teammates can induce feelings of isolation and loss. In fact, many athletes show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder following a traumatic injury.
“They often relive that moment over and over in their mind, resulting in hypervigilance, increased startle response and even kinesiophobia, which is an aversion to certain movements,” Dr. Norman said. “This can slow their ability to progress through physical therapy, delay their return and impair their ability to fully recover.”
Because athletes are trained to fight through both physical and mental challenges, it can be difficult to identify when help is needed. Regular check-ins with a mental health professional should be a part of every athlete’s training plan, whether they’re dealing with an injury or simply the pressure to perform.
“That stoic toughness that athletes possess is a real strength that helps them through any ups and downs of competition,” said Jen Carter, sport psychologist at Ohio State Medical Center. “But when they’re off the field, that can be a weakness because it often prevents them from asking for help, and we all need help sometimes.”