Chicago Sun-Times Feature

Elite athletes aren’t immune from mental-health struggles, and more needs to be done

Only recently have many athletes felt free to take their issues public.

By: Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times

Sometimes it seems the whole world is mentally ill.

This little sphere we inhabit can feel, in some odd way … plain nuts.

Who doesn’t sense it?

Even if you were recently feeling chipper, we gave you global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic to cool you down. Throw in inflation, chaotic politics, a vicious war in Ukraine with a dictator threatening to use nuclear weapons — the tool that curiously makes its point by wiping out humanity — and you have to wonder if depression shouldn’t be the new reasonableness.

For elite athletes, trying to make sense of so many life situations while focusing maniacally on the physical side, that balance between mental health and illness is razor-thin.

Only recently have many athletes felt free to make their mental health issues public. Of course, there always has been a stigma to admitting one has mental illness, a societal oddity considering nobody has a problem saying they have a torn labrum or broken toe.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic swimmer, became so depressed after each Olympics that he says he contemplated suicide. The darkness after a goal is achieved is one that strivers seldom factor into their journey. It’s one we lessers — who stopped our elite sports quests long ago — might not even comprehend.

Other Olympians who have talked about their depression include swimming champion Caeleb Dressel, snowboard champ Chloe Kim and gold-medal swimmers Amanda Beard and Allison Schmitt.

Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles made many sports fans think harder about the mental turmoil even the greatest undergo when she abruptly withdrew from last year’s Tokyo Games because of stress. “We’re human, too,’’ is her new mantra.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka, at the time the highest-paid female athlete in the world, suddenly pulled out of last summer’s French Open, citing her ‘‘long bouts of depression.’’

The types of mental distress for athletes can be many, from depression to anxiety to hopelessness to self-loathing, often manifested by eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young recently opened up about his severe childhood separation anxiety — basically, an undiagnosed fear of leaving his mother — that shockingly lasted into his early 30s, when he was already a star for the 49ers.

Attempting to excel at any sport at the highest level — whether in high school, college, the pros or even your local noon league — means focusing intently and taking on pressures that can pile up like a sack of stones.

Coaches can make that pressure almost unbearable at times. So can parents, peer groups, fans, best friends, wives, husbands.

And often the distress is hidden from everyone until it explodes in the saddest ways.

Athlete suicides, particularly in college, where the player must juggle sports, studying, social pressures and personal expectations, are on the rise.

In April, James Madison softball catcher and cleanup hitter Lauren Bernett, 20, died by suicide. So did Wisconsin distance runner Sarah Shulze, called by the school’s athletic director, “a gentle and kind soul, a loving daughter, sister, friend and human.’’

At least four other college athletes killed themselves in March and April.

This is tragic beyond the loss of life. The fact that competitive sport at least in part led to these drastic — and final — actions is deeply troubling.

That we need to help all athletes with their mental health is as clear as the fact that we need to have trainers and team doctors to help with their physical health.

Coaches who contribute to the mental un-wellness of their charges need to be stopped, not rewarded with multimillion-dollar contracts. Parents who subconsciously drive their children too hard need to reflect. And the athletes themselves need to know that their sanity comes first.

The catalyst for depression and anxiety can arise from many things — injuries, romantic distress, academic pain, fear of life without training.

Awhile back, I spent a school year at Wisconsin, studying its athletic program, noticing, among other things, the high rate of anorexia among the female distance runners. And I spent much time with the department psychologist, Rick Aberman, who, with the athlete’s consent, would allow me to sit in on individual mental-health sessions.

One young football player was badly depressed and homesick, ready to leave school. His issue, it finally arose after a couple of sessions, was that his dog back home had died.

Aberman talked the young man through the crisis. It helped. The athlete stayed in school.

Even the passing of a dog is a huge matter to one who deeply cares. It’s something to remember in this highest-of-all-stakes game.