At a panel Wednesday, three female student-athletes opened up about their personal experiences in an effort to facilitate discussion on the intersection of athletics and mental health — a topic many at the panel described as taboo.
The event, which took place in LC 101 on Wednesday and was organized by the student organization Mind Matters, featured administrators from both Yale athletics and Yale Health, as well as the three panelists who detailed their stories of mental health issues at Yale. Sixty-four people attended, the large majority being female student-athletes.
Conversations centered largely around the student panelists, who shared their struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and eating disorders, and the best methods to cope with such conditions while still performing as a Division I athlete and an Ivy League student.
“The expectation of happiness at Yale is so ingrained in our minds that not being okay doesn’t seem to be an option,” panelist and field hockey forward Alyssa Weiss ’17 said during the event. “You feel like you can’t talk about it.”
Weiss, who has experienced anxiety and depression since the seventh grade, highlighted the difficulty of balancing a mental health condition with her practice schedule and challenging coursework.
Adding to the difficulties, swimmer and panelist Isla Hutchinson-Maddox ’17 said, is the fact that mental health disorders are often a difficult topic to discuss at Yale. Gymnast and panelist Brittney Sooksengdao ’16 said she did not share with anyone until April of her freshman year that she was having panic attacks as frequently as twice a week.
In fact, generating conversation around an often stigmatized topic was a main goal of the event. Women’s tennis player and Mind Matters member Elizabeth Zordani ’18 first presented the idea for the event during a Mind Matters meeting because she felt mental health for athletes is a “pressing issue” that is not discussed enough.
“It is something very relevant to me because I am an athlete who has struggled with mental health and have teammates who have had similar issues,” Zordani told the News.
When speaking, Howard Blue, associate director of Yale Health’s Mental Health and Counseling Department, highlighted the small male presence in the audience; only 12 of the 64 people present were male, and all three members of the volunteer panel were female.
He added that mental health issues are “common struggles” experienced by student-athletes and non-athletes of both genders, though many people are silent about them.
“I struggle with the idea that because a person is part of a group they are going to have special kinds of issues.” Blue said. “There are certain things that are special to certain groups, including athletes. I think the reality is that all of us struggle at times, and that’s the nature of the human condition. The question is whether it knocks you down, keeps you from getting up or whether you can seek out the help and support you need to keep on going.”
Although the discussion focused specifically on the experiences of student-athletes, member of Mind Matters and women’s swimmer Michelle Chintanaphol ’17 said the event was not aimed at separating student-athletes from the rest of the students at Yale. Instead, its goal was to promote awareness that mental health may affect varsity athletes differently because of obligatory commitments to practices and competitions , as well as the close-knit communities of teams.
It is this closeness of teams that can help improve mental health conditions, all three student panelists noted. Hutchinson-Maddox and Sooksengdao also said that therapists at MH&C were important in their recovery processes.
“My team is a constant support system,” Hutchinson-Maddox said. “But I wish [mental health for athletes] was a bigger part of the collective conversation. A stage to address the issue such as this [one] is very important.”
After each of the three student panelists spoke about their experiences for approximately 15 minutes each, the event was opened up to questions, which had been either previously prepared by event organizers or submitted anonymously during the event.
When asked about the ways mental health issues affect athletes in particular, Chief of Student Health and Athletic Medicine Andrew Gotlin noted that student-athletes put significant stress on their bodies during practices and competitions. Both Gotlin and Brian Tompkins, senior associate athletic director of student services, said that coaches, physicians and trainers should be on the lookout for any signs of potential mental health issues on Yale teams.
“It’s time for athletics, not just at Yale, but collegiate athletics, to wake up,” Tompkins said. “It’s time to look at the role of administrators, trainers, coaches, in looking at athletes much more holistically. The intent is there, our athletic department has the well-being of student-athletes at heart. However, we need to hear form testimonies like these and other sources what the issues are and how to fix things, how to do things proactively.”
After the event, students present said the panel stimulated a positive discussion environment. Multiple students also thanked the panelists for sharing their experiences in a public setting, which they said helps facilitate conversations about mental health at Yale.
Eli Feldman ’16, a member of Mind Matters and the main organizer of the event, said he was “very pleased” with the turnout at the event, and said it had promoted a healthy discussion environment.
At the end of the event, Carole Goldberg, director of the Yale Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center, was available to speak to students who wished to seek support.