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Athletes’ biggest rival is often depression

Aug. 9, 2016 Palm Beach Post

The pageantry.

The competition.

The unforgettably heartwarming — and heartbreaking — moments.

For those of us watching the 2016 Olympics at home, the Games are two straight weeks of sporting events we rarely, if ever, contemplate outside this quadrennial fortnight.

But for the 11,000-plus athletes representing their countries, their competition is often more than just one another.

No, a great many of them battle a rival that no can see: depression.

And while many experts believe that elite athletes are no more at risk for depression than the general population (approximately 16 percent of the U.S. population is thought to suffer from some form of the disease), their disorders often go undetected.

Part of that is cultural.

As stigmatized as the admission of a mental health disorder can still be in the general population, it’s often more so in the world of elite competition.

After all, athletes are coached to be tough, strong, to will their way through pain.

But what happens when that pain isn’t physical?

In a 2013 study commissioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 21 percent of male college athletes and 27 percent of female athletes reported that, in the past year, they’d felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” What’s more, half the women and nearly a third of the men admitted to regularly experiencing “overwhelming anxiety.” Such findings are why the NCAA has now made mental health awareness/resources one of its prime initiatives for student athletes.

In the year leading up to the Rio Games, swimmer Allison Schmitt has been one of the rare active athletes to go public with her struggles with depression.

A now-three-time Olympian who won five medals — including three golds — at the 2012 Games, Schmitt, 26, has told various outlets that she first began experiencing depression around four years ago after returning from London.

This wasn’t your typical post-event letdown. No, it was a dark shift in her daily thinking.

But, like so many athletes in her situation, she initially told no one — and blamed herself.

To rationalize why she’d spend days on end in bed, she told the Baltimore Sun, “There were times I didn’t like being around myself, so I figured why would other people want to be around me?”

She also became adept at hiding her condition: “Anybody can put on a smile for three seconds. I knew what I needed to do to make it look like I was perfectly fine to the outside world.”

The catalyst for Schmitt going public with her struggles — and becoming the mental health advocate she now is — was the May 2015 suicide death of another elite athlete: Schmitt’s 17-year-old cousin, Pennsylvania high school basketball star April Locian.

In an feature story last month, Schmitt’s aunt (April’s mother) explained that, on a certain level, Schmitt felt complicit in April’s suicide because she had kept her own depression hidden.

Though suicide is just the 10th-leading causing of death in the general population, it’s the No. 2 cause of death for female collegiate athletes.

Schmitt is determined to help reverse that trend. In tribute to her cousin, she speaks to large gatherings of young athletes around the country, telling them about her own suicidal thoughts, and urging them to reach out to someone — anyone — if they feel similarly.

Schmitt’s already an Olympic gold medalist. But taking on this life-and-death cause shows she’s a true champion.

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