By Danielle Vallas and Gabriella Pelosi, D&G Wellness Consulting
Katie Meyer, a senior studying international relations at Stanford University, was a dynamic student-athlete serving as goalkeeper and captain for the women’s soccer team. Katie died by suicide on March 1, 2022. Besides occasionally stating that the need to be perfect caused her anxiety, no one, not even Katie’s parents, reported any warning signs for mental illness prior to Katie’s passing.
Athletes are driven, focused, goal-oriented, and high-achieving individuals. Qualities that enable them to excel at sports and in the classroom are also qualities that drive anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Unfortunately, stigma associated with mental health deters athletes from asking for help when needed. Noticing warning signs and supporting teammates is often difficult for athletes while they are also focusing on their performance. This seems to be all too familiar in Katie’s case.
According to a 2020 survey on student-athletes’ well-being by the NCAA, one in 12 college athletes reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function either “constantly” or “most every day.” Furthermore, one in four men and one in two female athletes reported “feeling overwhelmed by all they have to do,” while one in 10 men and one in three female athletes reported “feeling overwhelming anxiety.”
From a young age, athletes work on performance training for their physical health, working with specialized coaches, trainers, and nutritionists. There is a tremendous difference in how physical injuries are addressed compared to mental health challenges. When an athlete becomes physically injured, fans pay close attention to their healing process, the athlete is evaluated by on-site trainers, paramedics, doctors, specialists and, if necessary, they are given the time and support needed to heal. All this for physical health, and yet athletes are not given close to this level of information, resources, or skills to support their mental and emotional health. Often, they suffer in silence, only making matters worse.
Shifting the existing paradigm around mental health to focus on prevention and early intervention is critical for athletes. Mental health concerns in younger athletes specifically are more prevalent now than ever before. Their self-esteem and self-worth are determined by their playing time, ranking, and success on the field. Student-athletes are under tremendous pressure as they are constantly evaluated by coaches, scouts, teammates, and rival teams. This pressure leads to increased levels of anxiety on and off the field.
Starting the conversation about mental health with athletes, in conjunction with early intervention and prevention training, will reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and help athletes to get the support they need. Ultimately, student-athletes must know: “Sports are what you do, not who you are.”
About D&G Wellness Consulting
To support this paradigm shift and provide early intervention and prevention for athletes, D&G Wellness Consulting has created specialized programs designed to help athletes improve and manage their mental health and help coaches and parents recognize the signs in their student-athletes. By working closely with multiple former Division I athletes, skill development and information are provided that are often missing from high school and college athletics. Through personal stories about playing competitively, managing demands of academic careers, and challenges with mental health, student-athletes can connect with team members and grow together from hearing their experiences. The program focuses on understanding why mental health matters in athletics, exploring athletes’ identity and core values, creating a positive team culture, recognizing red flags and seeking support should athletes need help, and introducing mindfulness to foster a healthy mindset.
No longer simply an authority figure teaching the team ‘X’s and ‘O’s, coaches are now tasked with supporting their team on and off the field, including academic pressures, COVID-related stress, and most especially their athletes’ mental health. At the same time, coaches are under ever-increasing demands to build their programs, create opportunities for their athletes to be recruited, and work with their athletes during the off season. This pressure is coming from parents, administration, students, and alumni, and coaches often say they are struggling to “keep all the balls in the air.” They are not trained for what they are currently facing when it comes to supporting their athletes’ mental health. D&G’s program for coaches emphasizes the importance of mental health in athletics, provides them with the skills and language to use with athletes, and helps coaches support their own mental health.
Danielle Vallas, co-founder of D&G Wellness Consulting, served as an educator and coach for more than 16 years at independent schools in Buffalo, New York. Through her work as an athletic coach, Danielle saw the need for mental health to be addressed both on and off the field. Her athletes began seeking her out more and more off the field for help with their own mental health difficulties. This inspired Danielle to become a licensed mental health counselor working with athletes. Similarly, co-founder Gabriella Pelosi began seeing an increased need for mental health intervention in her private practice with teens, specifically among athletes. Many expressed that their biggest obstacles were not the skills they needed to play, but their negative thoughts, the need to be perfect, and the intrusive thoughts that left them in dire situations.
Founded by two licensed mental health counselors, D&G Wellness Consulting provides training and professional development on a variety of wellness topics to inspire long-lasting change at work, school, and home.