University of Wisconsin redshirt senior offensive lineman Ray Ball was nowhere to be found after he suffered a right arm injury at the end of the Badgers’ 2015 fall camp in August. Week after week, when asked about Ball’s health, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph kept saying Ball was being evaluated throughout the week.
It turned out that Ball’s injury was a lot more serious than originally perceived, and after he wasn’t listed as one of the seniors who would be honored before the team’s final home game on Nov. 21 against Northwestern, head coach Paul Chryst revealed that Ball hadn’t been with the team since the third week of the regular season.
For Ball, the injury that he had been intermittently dealing with for nearly two years worsened to the point where his arm and a couple of his fingers would occasionally go numb. At those times, he couldn’t even grab the ball. Football became too much of a risk, and ultimately, he decided to walk away from the sport he had played since he was five years old.
It was a decision that left Ball reeling.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done was step away from the game because that was your hard work, your blood, your life and soul,” Ball said. “You lose that sense of purpose just because of the fact that you lose that interaction with those 100 or so guys and the coaches.”
Ball described the feeling of having to walk away from the sport he loved as heartbreaking, and while Rudolph remained supportive and allowed the lineman to stick around and help out the team in the film room, it still wasn’t the same as sharing the field with the other 10 members of the offense.
Ultimately, Ball’s first-born son, Otho Raymond Ball VI, who was born during the summer before Ball’s injury, helped give him a new purpose: being a father.
“My son was definitely my motivation because my fiancé and I put him in this world,” Ball said. “It was something that I had to step up and take care of.”
The events surrounding his injury took both a physical and mental toll on Ball, however, the birth of his son coupled with the support he received from his family, teammates and coaches helped him cope with that stress.
Unfortunately, not all student athletes have that level of support or external motivation when their playing careers come to an end — and the consequences can be devastating. According to a January 2016 study by the British Medical Journal, 6.3 percent of all Division I student athletes had symptoms of moderate to severe depression.
This is not a far cry from the 5.4 percent of the general population diagnosed with depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Student athletes struggling with mental health issues is a real and prevalent issue both at UW and colleges across the nation. The reality that some of the most physically healthy members of a college campus can be some of the most mentally fragile is something the general population, along with the athletes themselves, struggle to grasp.
The struggle of identity loss
Among the 6.3 percent of athletes with depressive symptoms is former Wisconsin linebacker and current UW sophomore Ben Fischer, who made the decision to walk away from football after he suffered the third major concussion of his career in August 2014.
After suffering from the concussion, Fischer was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in December.
“There was a period of time where I really struggled to get out and do stuff in general — even going to class,” Fischer said. “It was pretty demoralizing. It’s kind of hard to understand what it’s like unless you’ve experienced it.”
Fischer believes the symptoms of his depression came as a result of football being such a huge part of his life and then having it abruptly taken away. Helplessness pervaded his thoughts.
His interest in sports diminished to the point where attending UW football games or even watching football on TV were no longer appealing. Even things Fischer had enjoyed doing his entire life, like playing video games, were no longer fun.
Dr. Alison Brooks, a sports medicine specialist at UW, said there is a high correlation between serious injuries and depression among student athletes.
“Some athletes get depressed because the injury is a huge, life-altering change,” Brooks said. “They’re struggling with that loss of identity, as in they aren’t an athlete right now. They aren’t around their teammates and they are hardly even exercising.”
That identity crisis was something both Fischer and Ball said they dealt with when they walked away from football. For both, football was such a huge part of their lives that it defined who they were.
“That was who I was,” Ball said. “I was developing and building this identity, and because of an injury, I can’t be that person. It’s just like, who am I?”
Dr. Claudia Reardon, an expert on sports psychiatry at UW, said there is a major connection between a student athlete’s identity and his or her mental health.
The more a student athlete’s identity is tied up in his or her sport, the more likely he or she is to suffer from symptoms of depression after their playing days are over, she said.
“If you haven’t developed your identity within your major or thought about other potential career paths, or if your social life is very limited or only includes things that relate to your sport, suddenly your identity is gone,” Reardon said.
One thing many sports psychologists do with student athletes suffering from depression, Reardon said, is find what their other interests are. While the doctors want student athletes to keep sports a part of their lives, they also know there are other things that will spike their interest in the meantime.
For Ball, that interest was becoming a dad, but for Fischer, who underwent counseling following his diagnosis, it was playing the piano.
“I used to play the piano a lot when I was younger and I took lessons,” Fischer said. “I started doing that again, which I think helped a lot. I was also just searching within myself, just trying to find everything I enjoy doing.”
Ultimately, both psychiatrists and psychologists encourage focusing on an area away from the playing field where athletes can release their emotions.
Student athletes are moving from a setting where they feel they can’t show any signs of weakness to one where they can be at their weakest. Reardon said it’s a crucial, yet difficult step for them to take.
“In the doctor’s office, they can cry, they can say they’re sad,” Reardon said. “They can say that they are having thoughts that life isn’t worth living. They can say that they feel helpless and worthless and hopeless. And it’s not easy. It is not easy for them to change.”
The first steps to recovery
But mental health struggles among student athletes can arise from far more than just quitting sports.
Reardon highlighted that, among other reasons, student athletes specifically suffer from mental health issues because of performance failure and a phenomenon called overtraining syndrome, where too much exercise can cause excessive stress, leading to depression-like symptoms.
Regardless of the cause, the need for support remains the same, as it does with all victims of depression.
In the sports world, however, it starts with the physicians dealing directly with the student athletes. They are typically the first to notice any signs of mental illness, Reardon said.
Reardon added she gets plenty of referrals from team doctors and trainers for athletes who are in immediate post-injury state, so she believes those working closely with student athletes often notice the proper things.
For Fischer, as soon as he was in a post-injury state and beginning to show symptoms, he was immediately recommended to a therapist and given seven free sessions to help him cope.
But his decision to see someone was definitely not an easy one.
“It was a difficult decision at first,” Fischer said. “I wanted to see how things went and if I could adapt pretty quick and get back to normal. But that didn’t happen.”
This again stems from the desire to maintain that strong, tough facade as a student athlete at a prominent university like UW.
Ball and Fischer, as well as plenty of other student athletes from all sports across the country, are having a major part of their lives taken away from them without notice. The consequences can be devastating, even for the seemingly strongest of people.
“Just the fact that you have this big football player in your office and they are three feet taller than you and really strong, and they are the star of the team,” Reardon said. “And you think there is no way they are depressed.”
But there is a way. There is a way for someone so physically strong to feel so emotionally fragile on the inside.
“The general public perception is that athletes are relatively immune to these problems,” Reardon said. “They think if you look physically strong and tough on the outside, that equates to everything on the inside being way more stable than everyone else. It is not true. What is true is that athletes are just as susceptible to depression as anyone else.”