My name is Liam Sweeney and I play for the Varsity Blues men’s rugby team. In light of recent organizing around mental health issues at the university, I wanted to join the ongoing conversation and share my point of view on this sensitive topic.
As a student athlete, you are portrayed as the very best — the cream of the crop — both academically and physically, especially at U of T. This school is known for its gruelling academics and ‘sink or swim’ attitude when it comes to surviving the gauntlet. The academics alone at this university could push someone to the brink of insanity, and if you add a rigorous and demanding sports team to it, it could very well break them.
However, many student athletes choose to remain silent about their mental well-being, instead opting to either deal with it personally or not deal with it at all. To my detriment, I dealt with my mental health on my own. I know many other student athletes who also tried to overcome their struggles on their own, remaining silent to their coaches and teammates.Silence is one of the worst things for one’s mental well-being, but we didn’t want to acknowledge that.
Unfortunately, silence on this topic happens too often. When I had trouble with my mental well-being, I put a brave face on. Around my teammates, I was always happy and I joked around with them, even though, in truth, I was in a very dark place. It was my first year at university, my first time away from my home in New York City, and my first time being truly under a monumental amount of stress.
My answer to this stress was to become a hermit. I locked myself in my dorm. Some days I wouldn’t leave, wouldn’t shower, wouldn’t eat. I wouldn’t even show up to my lectures or tutorials. Practices and lifts were missed for weeks on end and I did the bare minimum to not get cut from the team or get placed on academic probation. I didn’t let my coaches or my closest friends know about my situation because I didn’t want to be thought of as weak, and I was ashamed that I couldn’t deal with what U of T was throwing at me.
As a rugby man, I’m supposed to be strong-willed, with a ‘put up or shut up’ mentality. I’m supposed to be rough and tough and not take crap from anyone. Admitting my mental health problems to my teammates would have destroyed the facade that I was trying so hard to maintain. But this image of always being strong and healthy plagues varsity teams. Student athletes won’t get help because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. This machismo culture surrounding most sports is the reason why you don’t hear many student athletes speaking up or seeking help for their mental health.
In a society where being the best of the best physically and academically is heavily emphasized, more often than not mental health takes a back seat. This was also the case for the captain of our team, who struggled with anxiety and depression. These afflictions are often not visible. Our captain always looked happy; I look up to him as not only an exemplary rugby player but also a role model on how to treat people with kindness and respect. But under this image of excellence are illnesses waiting in silence. He too, remained quiet for a very long time about his mental health issues.
When I asked him how he coped with his depression and anxiety, our captain explained that he “didn’t want to be perceived as weak.”
“I believed that my issues with anxiety and depression [were things] that I shouldn’t feel and that I was causing myself to feel those ways and should have been able to just snap out of it,” he added.
“This definitely wasn’t the best method as I turned to marijuana to be that support for me when I needed to go get my thoughts out of my own head, which would also cause me to miss team sessions and events regularly.”
Another team leader, who chose to remain anonymous, had a similar story. Although he never considered himself depressed, he did admit that in his second year at university, various issues came up that seriously affected his mental health. He lost the team a game, having missed four crucial kicks to put them ahead, he went through a break up, and his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He told me, “I never felt bad for myself, but I lost interest in things, to the point that I lost motivation for everything. I gradually stopped going to lifts, practices and even classes. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to on the team… who I can really open up to.”
The idea of not having anyone to talk to isn’t specific to rugby players. However, when taking into consideration rugby’s unique attitude toward one’s duty, which pushes its players to keep on going, not show pain, just deal with it quietly, and not ‘whine’ or ‘complain’ to anyone, it can be easy to see why many athletes don’t open up to their fellow teammates.
The first thing you should do if you’re going through a rough patch is allow your teammates to know how you’re doing and what you’re dealing with.
It took Martin a year to reach out to the team for help, but it took a huge weight off his back.
“After a year of recognizing what was going on with myself I began to open up to some of [my] teammates about what I was going through. I found this to be helpful, as on days where I was less inclined to be at a workout or practice, I was comforted to know that if I didn’t seem normal these boys would understand why and not treat me differently because of that.” Emphasizing his anxiety and mood would only make things worse.
He added that “as I continue to be a part of the team and become more comfortable with opening up to others myself, I try and be as open and honest with all my teammates about my plights with these mental health issues.”
Every student-athlete needs to recognize that they are part of a team. It takes a lot of honesty and bravery to admit it when you are down. It is not in any athlete’s mindset to admit defeat, since they wouldn’t be able to perform at the level they are performing at if they just rolled over. But you must also realize that it is impossible to succeed with such a heavy burden weighing you down.
Many changes still need to be made on both administrative and personal levels on the topic of mental health. Talking about it is a good first step. The stigma of being perceived as weak or broken can only be shattered if more people open up about their struggles with mental health. Talking about your mental health doesn’t have to be with your teammates or your coaches. It could be your friends or your family — as long as you talk to someone. What is most important is to remember that it’s okay to not be okay.