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Promoting Mental Health Awareness Among Athletes

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By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |

May is mental health awareness month so I feel compelled to write about this topic today. I am writing about my own experiences in an attempt to promote better understanding of mental health issues among athletes. While I have written about these issues before, I have not discussed them from the perspective of my own clinical experience. It seems like a long time ago, but I was once a clinician and a psychotherapist. I earned my undergraduate degree in psychology and attended two doctorate programs in clinical psychology. I also earned a certificate in clinical depth psychology and wrote my doctorate dissertation in archetypal psychology. During my clinical career spanning over a decade, I worked in more than ten different hospitals and mental health agencies. My most significant clinical training was through a training analysis with some of the best psychoanalysts around. I only highlight my training background here just to give some credibility to what I am about to discuss.

I once had a client that was a successful athlete and a sort of a star of his high school football team. He was a successful youngster with a beautiful girlfriend, supporting family, and a part-time job after school. He was popular and well liked.  However, he developed a panic disorder that eventually took all this away from him. When I started treating him, he was home schooling and barely left home. He was so afraid of having a panic attack that he could not play football, see his girlfriend, or hold on to his part-time job. He was getting increasingly depressed. His fear of panic attacks was making his panic attacks worse and more frequent. This is not uncommon among teenagers who are often sensitive to how others see them. He was embarrassed about his condition and did not want others to know about it. After all, there is a big stigma associated with mental illness. Having a panic attack disorder is hard enough but this stigma and the resulting fear were even more challenging problems for him.

In a typical psychoanalytic fashion, I worked with my client’s dreams. I asked him to write them down and we analyzed them together during our sessions. I also did some systematic desensitization exercises with him although I am not truly a behaviorist. However, in this case, it was needed. In addition, I employed some rational emotive behavior therapy techniques with him. We met with his parents, girlfriend, and his teammates explaining his condition. The goal was to convince him that there were not reasons to fear panic attacks and that he could learn to cope with them. He needed to see that his support system would be there. We worked together for many months and slowly he started to improve. His progress was not as fast as I would have hoped, but we were getting somewhere. I was hoping for a breakthrough, and eventually it came out of nowhere. In one of our sessions, he told me about a re-occurring dream that he had almost every night. In this dream, he was chased in the forest by a wild boar. He panicked as the boar got closer no matter how fast he ran. He saw a wooden fence and jumped on the top of it. He was balancing on the top of the fence like on a tight rope. The boar was trying to get to him on one side and on the other side he saw nothing but black emptiness. As the boar was more aggressively pushing and swaying the fence, he started falling down to the side of darkness. At that point he always woke up in a cold sweat and shaking like a leaf. However, at this one night, the dream was different. This time he did not fall into the black emptiness. Instead, he jumped on the front of the wild beast, and stood there. Immediately, the boar turned around and ran away. I was overjoyed. This was the big moment we had been waiting for. He had finally conquered his fear. He had faced his “demons” and won. The boar, in his dream, symbolized his panic attacks and he was no longer afraid of them.

After the therapeutic breakthrough, my client was able to return to playing football and resume his social life. He was also able to go back to his part time job. It didn’t all happen overnight but the progress was speedy after this peak experience. The panic attacks became increasingly rare and he learned to cope with his anxiety. He worked through them. The lesson here is that fears can be overcome and mental illnesses can be recovered from. Athletes can face these challenges like anyone else and mental health issues can end promising careers. The stigma can be worse than the illness itself. For panic disorder sufferers, the fear of a panic attack can often be the main reason for getting panic attacks. Once the stigma and the fear is removed, recovery is possible. Mental illness needs to be normalized. With my client, we got there by him realizing that his family and friends were not going to judge him and think any less of him if he had a panic attack. They were there to support him and get him through it. There was nothing to fear. Therefore, there was no reason to panic. Acceptance led to recovery.

My hope is that this case would help us all to remember to be supporting and accepting towards people suffering from mental illness. Any one of us can develop a panic disorder or any other kinds of mental illnesses. We may all know someone who is struggling. They only need us to support them and be there for them. This young man will remain in my memories for the rest of my life, and I hope that his amazing story will inspire you as well.

Dr. Tomi Wahlström is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.

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