Injuries take a toll on anyone, but for athletes they can also mean a temporary loss of identity. In fact, athletes report worse mental health outcomes as a result of injury than the general public.
According to a Princeton study, “Athletes may be at greater risk for mental health issues in that they are less likely to seek treatment, may be afraid to reveal symptoms, may see seeking counseling as a sign of weakness, are accustomed to working through pain, may have a sense of entitlement and never had to struggle, and/or may not have developed healthy coping mechanisms to deal with failure. In addition, many athletes have not developed their identity outside of that as an athlete and therefore if this role is threatened by injury or illness, they may experience a significant ‘loss.’”
This resonates with the experiences of Gabby Beltran ’24 and Dylan Souza ’23, two student-athletes who have endured significant injuries. Beltran, who is on the women’s basketball team, started playing soccer when she was five and moved onto basketball in third grade.
“Sports has just been like a huge part of my life. It’s connected our family,” Beltran said. “We would go play soccer, on the weekends all together, go on hikes … Watching the sports games on the weekends has also just been huge for me, but that’s all I’ve ever known. Sports are basically my whole personality and identity.”
When Beltran injured her ACL, it was the first time in her life she was forced to consider who she was outside of being an athlete.
“I would still go to the gym, and I would do so many arm workouts, like my arms were ripped because I had so many arm workouts, core workouts, everything to just stay active in some sort of way,” Beltran said. “But it was definitely a dark time, I will not lie to you. Trying to figure out just who I was, … it was not the easiest.”
Souza had a similar experience after having multiple knee fractures from running track in high school, eventually needing double arthroscopic knee surgery his first year running at Lewis & Clark.
“The confidence that I had in myself came from my knees,” Souza said. “Because I was just known as an athlete throughout high school and I was known (for) running.”
Souza described himself as “happy go lucky” before his surgeries, but after undergoing not one, but two surgeries within the span of a year, he started having depressive feelings every day.
“First surgery, the recovery process was smooth because I had still had hope and I went through it really well,” Souza said. “I had to be attached to this muscle contractor device for the first eight months because my nerves are really damaged. I had a straight leg cast too for three months. I was just in bed for three months and then I was feeling very lonely, very lonely.”This loneliness increased after Souza spent two times as long in bed after the second surgery. His feelings were not reverted after returning to the team either.
“They’re all having their running practices and I’m going alone every day to the trainers,” Souza said. “… I came back and I anticipated coming back and even though I thought those emotions would go away, they’re still there. I’d say I fell out of love with running.”
Souza is not alone in forming a negative relationship with his sport. However, this started forming for Beltran even before her most recent injury.
“I started to really base my mental health based off of my athletic performance,” Beltran said. “It really got so bad, to the point where I just needed a day off just one day off to rest my mind and I was genuinely freaking out … I came home crying to my roommates. I was like, I can’t do this anymore. But I love my sport, I was just stuck in this weird in-between.”
Beltran asked for a mental health day from her coach and it was received poorly. Because she missed a practice before a game, she lost her starting spot and felt punished for taking care of herself. Instead of dwelling on this, Beltran wanted to focus on channeling her hurt into positivity. With the mentorship of Assistant Athletic Trainer Gina Parisi, Beltran has been working on a mental health program for athletes.
“That’s just honestly how our society and how sports works, that sports culture works,” Beltran said. “Mental health isn’t something you’re trained in how to deal with or how to cope with, which is why in the mental health program I also wanted to include athletic staff training, such as suicide prevention, nonviolent communication, just learning how to better support (athletes).”
The mental health program proposal will be presented to the community in early December. A program like this would have been very valuable for Souza. His loneliness might have been less traumatic if he had been properly warned or informed.
“Most doctors, they literally just tell you the physical stuff. They don’t tell you anything about the mental,” Souza said. “Your parents don’t know, coaches don’t really know. You usually go through that on your own.”