‘It’s OK to not be OK:’ Student athletes highlight mental wellness at symposium in Colorado Springs | Subscriber Content

Vanderbilt University lacrosse attacker Cailin Bracken wakes up every morning, looks in the mirror and gives herself a high-five.

That’s a lot of palm slapping, but it’s become a necessary mental boost for the 20-year-old who beat back an eating disorder she developed at age 11 and depression that showed up in her freshman year of college.

Alcoholism brought her to death's door at 31. Now she's helping others recover through hospital peer coach program

“I love an affirmation,” she said Wednesday, before speaking at the second annual Mental Wellness and the Student-Athlete symposium.

So does 10-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt. The freestyle swimmer, who has faced depression and says it’s unlikely she will resume her Olympic career, has tried whispering an affirmation to herself — such as “I am loved” or “I am worthy” — whenever she passes a doorway.

“You don’t realize how many doorways you walk through,” she said, “but it helps me with flipping the script of depression.”

Held at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, the event was presented by TrueSport, an educational program of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

More than 1,700 student, parents, coaches and others attended the symposium in-person and online. Organizers also held a Mindfulness and Positivity Project training for 100 local student athletes.

While sports can unite people, the pursuit of being on top of the game can be detrimental to young players’ mental well-being because the athlete as a person can get lost in the quest for success, Bracken said.

“It’s so exciting to be here; you can feel the history of sport in the national and global community,” Bracken said of the museum.

“Sport has the power to bring people together. But when we lose sight of the athlete, we lose the sport,” she said. “We must maintain the integrity of the athletes that have made sports beautiful for everyone — fans, teams and athletes alike.”

Colorado Springs sobriety center gets new name, larger office

Athletes such as Olympic gymnast Simone Biles publicly sharing personal stories about mental ailments, coupled with the social isolation, uncertainty and grief of the COVID-19 pandemic, have raised awareness, said keynote speaker Candice Williams, Ph.D., director of mind, health and wellness with the Boston Celtics pro basketball team.

“Athletes are more apt to talk about it, to normalize it’s OK to not be OK, given the times we’ve experienced,” said Williams, a licensed professional counselor.

“We’re seeing increasing mental health awareness and declining stigma,” she said, which is helping athletes reach their “best self.”

About 30% of women and 25% of men who are student athletes report having anxiety, yet only 10% of all college athletes with known mental health conditions seek professional care, according to The American College of Sports Medicine.

The organization’s research also shows that 35% of elite athletes — those with the potential of competing in the Olympics or at a professional level — suffer from disordered eating, burnout, depression and/or anxiety.

Burnout is a sign of mental fatigue, Williams said. “It means you have too much on your plate.”

Student athletes face internal and external pressures, including high expectations to perform, speakers said. They seek perfectionism and often lose their identity except for the role of athlete, many said.

“Focus on who you are separate from what you do on the court or in the classroom,” Williams said. “Focus on the mind in training the body.”

Williams promotes “energy management” for everyone. Every Monday after work, for example, she takes a break from emails, text messages and phone calls.

“It’s being able to implement and set boundaries,” she said. “I have to put myself first.”

Athletes can use traditional, homeopathic and holistic treatments in addressing mental problems, including medication, mindfulness techniques, talk therapy, group therapy and support groups, Williams said.

Bracken, who has become a mental health advocate for student athletes, said she practices breathing exercises when she’s feeling anxious, to settle her mind in the here and now. She also eats well, takes walks and meditates to balance her mind, body and spirit.

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs basketball guard Geoff Kelly, who graduated in May with a master of business administration degree, also follows his own advice.

“Just being OK with not being OK has been huge,” he said. “Letting myself off the hook a little bit, being vulnerable, talking with people lifts that weight off my shoulders.”

Kelly had three knee surgeries in two years while playing basketball at UCCS, which led to depression.

Colorado College students call for change amid 3 student deaths in recent months

He was always the go-to guy when teammates had problems. When he himself began spiraling downward, he said he felt like his voice was gone.

“I couldn’t be the leader I knew I was,” he said. “In sports people know you, and you don’t want to look weak, or like you’re going through something. That’s hard to stomach.”

In fact, athletes may be too resilient, some said. The quality is considered a tool to deal with adversity in a healthy way.

“We put our head down and push through,” Paralympian rower Charley Nordin said. “It’s not the right formula.”

Athletes are used to being told what to do, Schmitt said.

“I felt like speaking about mental health was complaining,” she said.

The Olympian internalized her feelings until a cousin died by suicide in 2015.

“I knew I could share her story even if she wasn’t on Earth, so people didn’t feel so alone and to save a family from going through what we experienced with my cousin’s death,” said Schmitt, who’s finishing a master’s degree in social work.

Nordin, who won a silver medal in the 2020 Tokyo Games, said he didn’t take his mental health seriously until he ended up in a wheelchair from a spinal injury.

But he learned that the more he took care of his mental health, the better he performed athletically.

“Athlete mental health can be a touchy subject, seeing us be open and vulnerable,” he said. “I’m hoping an event like this can help kids have conversations and that we strive for less stigmatism and more inclusivity.”

Bracken reminds student athletes who feel mentally off that they’re not alone.

“You are so validated,” she said. “You don’t need to be ashamed or afraid. You’re not crazy. If anyone makes you feel that way, you can draw that boundary with them.”