After 20 hours of practice, 15 hours of class and a four hour game against a tough competitor, Olive Sagopolu finds he needs to just sit down and play his ukulele.
This is how senior University of Wisconsin defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu prefers to unwind when life as a student-athlete gets frantic. The native Samoan learned to play the ukulele when he was 6-years-old and has not stopped since. Most of what he plays is from his childhood in Pago Pago but sometimes he treats his roommates to more familiar selections like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
College can present a variety of stressors, causing many students to experience mental health issues or disorders, and student athletes are no exception. Whether it be anxiety, work overload or depression, student athletes face many of the issues non-athlete, UW students encounter.
There are also issues that primarily or exclusively affect student-athletes. This includes the treatment options available to athletes and the impact of athletic life on one’s mental health and performance.
Athletes experience a lot of familiar problems
Despite the differences between their everyday lives, there is a lot of overlap between UW student-athletes and regular students, particularly around their school work and social lives.
UW Athletics Department of Clinical and Sports Psychology is dedicated to helping student-athletes deal with mental health concerns that might arise during their time at Wisconsin. Kristine Eiring, the director, said there are several things student-athletes and their non-athletic counterparts have in common.
“In many ways, student-athletes are similar to their non [athletic] counterparts on campus,” Eiring said. “They have similar issues of adjusting to college, stress and anxiety, relationship concerns, family concerns and other challenges that are common to the college population.”
Wisconsin women’s hockey captain and senior Baylee Wellhausen said a lot of the stress that she experiences in school is the same as her peers. Dealing with midterms, stress and still managing to take time for yourself are things that all college students face as disruptions for their mental health.
UW Women’s hockey player Mikaela Gardner also said she employs familiar strategies to help her manage all of her school commitments.
“It’s a lot of planning ahead,” Gardner said. “[We have to make] a conflict calendar, which makes us see all of our due dates and tests and having to prepare for them ahead of time. It’s a lot of pre-planning.”
Athletes face unique obstacles
While many student-athletes do experience the same issues as non-athlete students during their time at UW, there are different pressures and obstacles that set athletes’ encounters with mental health apart.
“You have to draw the line between your personal life and your athletic life. Who you are on the ice is not who you are off the ice. You just have to say, ‘That was aimed at how I play and not a personal attack.Mikaela Gardner, UW women's hockey player
University Health Services’ sports psychiatrist Claudia Reardon said athletes face stigma around receiving help for or even talking about mental health issues due to the “tough-it-out attitude that is prevalent” throughout athletics.
“Given the culture of toughness that exists in sports and the need to not show weakness on the field, it can be really hard to turn that off when they get off the field,” Reardon said. “Being able to say ‘Wow, I’m feeling depressed or I’m feeling anxious and this is not OK. I need to get help for this,’ can be a big grey area for people.”
For athletes who require medication for their illness, Reardon has to consider a unique set of standards and considerations have to be considered before an athlete may receive their prescription.
Due to NCAA regulations and the physical rigors of high-level athletics, UW athletes can only be prescribed certain medications because some could impact their performance or their physical health. As a result, student-athletes may not have access to certain types of medicine, such as ADHD stimulants, that are standard for treating certain mental health disorders.
“I have to be aware of the safety issues that can arise,” Reardon said. “There are some medications where, if the athlete is slightly dehydrated, the medication can become fatal. It can become toxic in their bloodstream.”
Whether it is because pressure and critiques, or a specific sport’s ideal body type pushing an athlete to try and gain the perfect physique, Reardon said playing a sport collegiately might lead to an athlete developing a mental disorder.
For example, if someone is participating in a sport where there is extreme pressure to maintain a very low body mass index, they could develop an eating disorder as a direct consequence of playing the sport Reardon said.
The public exposure student-athletes face can also manifest as mental health stressors, whether in real life or online.
Gardner said living in the spotlight is tough but dealing with criticism is something she signed up for when coming to a Division I university.
“You have to draw the line between your personal life and your athletic life,” Gardner said. “Who you are on the ice is not who you are off the ice. You just have to say, ‘That was aimed at how I play and not a personal attack.’”
While this separation might appear easy in theory, Communication Arts Professor Jason Kido Lopez agreed college athletes are put in a difficult position and are often held to the same standards of professional athletes.
Lopez said there is something odd about using discourses used for adult professional athletes on younger, collegiate ones.
“They end up getting yelled at on Twitter for their performances and you can have a talking head on ESPN talking about how a college player choked, just like you would a professional athlete,” Lopez said.
One of the most common issues student-athletes experience during their time in college are mental health concerns surrounding injuries and vice versa. Mental health issues can make an athlete’s recovery from certain injuries more difficult, just as injuries can affect an athlete’s mental health.
Long-term injuries can be particularly devastating to athletes, especially in how it leads to them missing valuable playing time. With collegiate careers usually lasting four years, injuries can drastically shorten the already brief careers of UW athletes.
Wisconsin junior linebacker Chris Orr suffered a ACL injury in 2016 and spent the rest of the season watching from the sideline, wearing a headset to communicate with coaches or players during the game. His experience made him feel as though he was not contributing to his team, with the feeling worsening as the season progressed.
“I’m never wearing that headset again,” Orr said after recovering from his injury.
Recurring injuries caused by the strenuous repetition standard to athletics can also be linked to mental health. A study done by Tracy Covassin, an athletic trainer of Michigan State University, found that 30 percent of the injuries student-athletes face are from overusing muscles during workouts and practice.
These injuries then tend to happen multiple times to an athlete in their career, which can impact them physically and mentally. Covassin said when an athlete acquires the same injury multiple times, it can impede their recovery due to the mental stress that often surrounds the injury.
“Understanding the frequency, rate and severity of overuse injuries is an important first step for designing effective injury-prevention programs, intervention strategies and treatment protocols to prevent and rehabilitate athletes with these types of injuries,” Covaissen wrote.
Reardon also said injuries and mental illness go hand in hand most of the time. Some athletes who are going through an injury also experience an accompanying mental illness, usually anxiety or depression.
But while there may be a lot of negatives that come with an injury, there can be some benefits as well. For Sagopolu, his 2016 injury presented him with a rare break to fully focus on schoolwork.
“Your mindset is definitely a big thing when getting hurt. You have to try and stay positive, no matter the negative outcome,” Sagopolu said. “When I got injured, it taught me to focus on school more. Yeah, football was done, but I did the best I could to try and get back as fast as I can.”
Another positive thing that can come out of an injury is it provides a common ground for athletes.
Orr now helps his fellow teammates who have shared the tough process of recovery. When teammate and friend Jack Cichy sustained an ACL injury during practice in the summer of 2017, Orr immediately stepped in, offering words of support for Cichy as he began his own recovery journey.
Orr said that Cichy can confide in him things he might not feel comfortable telling around other teammates.
“I’ve just been trying to be there for him, listen to him and help encourage him along the way,” Orr said.
Athletes find ways to cope together, individually and through athletics
Orr knows that part of being a teammate is trying to help whenever you can. Whether it means offering an ear to someone going through a tough time or telling someone you understand what they’re going through, it can be smallest things that make the difference to someone.
“In general, sport and exercise are very healthy things and they are conducive to mental health and mental well-being. Just like with anyone else things can go awry and athletes are not immune to that.”Claudia Reardon, UHS sports psychiatrist
Wisconsin women’s hockey captain Baylee Wellhausen said telling someone you understand what they’re going through is a “big thing.” Just letting someone know they’re not alone and someone understands them can be the best type of support, especially for younger players.
In addition to his ukelele, Sagapolu also finds other methods to help himself and his teammates deal with stress on and off the field, usually through a good laugh.
“When you see guys getting hard on themselves you tell them ‘Hey, it’s football man, have fun!’” Sagapolu said. “No matter what it is, crack a joke, act weird, make them laugh. Just doing silly things like that can help lighten the mood.”
This type of support and self-awareness of one’s own mental health is something Eiring and her staff are working to encourage all athletes on campus through classes offered to athletes or through individual counseling.
Eiring said good social supports, quality and quality of sleep, proper nutrition and effective coping strategies are the basics for buffering mental health problems.
“We hope to be part of teaching [student-athletes] the importance of self-care that will help them for life,” Eiring said.”
Sometimes these coping strategies manifest in individual ways as well. Gardner and her teammates also know everyone needs their alone time. She said sometimes she and her roommates, also hockey players, will all go into their own rooms, shut their doors and watch Netflix by themselves.
Though college athletics can cause or exacerbate athletes’ mental health issues, Reardon said there are many positives that come with playing sports, especially for those with mental health issues.
“In general, sport and exercise are a very healthy thing and they are conducive to mental health and mental well-being,” Reardon said. “Just like with anyone else things can go awry and athletes are not immune to that.”