As a coach at the college or high school level, you will work with thousands of athletes. Over the course of my career, I have worked with many athletes who have had mental illness who either came into the program with the illness or developed it during college. This article addresses the stigma of mental illness and some possible ways for the coach to work with, deal with, and continue to mentor such people.

What is mental illness? Well, first we must go over what it is not. It is not off their rocker, psycho killer, bat shit crazy, loony bin, crazy old coot, or anything of that nature. Mental illness is a condition that affects your mood, thinking, and/or behavior. You know what someone who has mental illness is? Someone to be avoided? Someone to ridicule? Someone to throw stones at? No. They are a person. They are a person who is dealing with a struggle so severe that you might not be able to stand it. They often have gone through things that have left them cracked yet they have been able to continue living while others were not able to go on.

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What causes mental illness? There are a multitude of things. According to Mayo Clinic, three of the main causes are inherited traits, pre-birth exposure, and brain chemistry. Something else that can either trigger or lead to mental illness is traumatic exposure. Think of these three things from Mayo Clinic — the inherited traits, pre-birth exposure and brain chemistry. Why would you make fun of someone for any of them? These are not things that they can help. Their mother may have been on drugs or an alcoholic and they have to bear the punishment for their parent’s sins. The brain chemistry may cause them to see things in a different way, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Vincent Van Gogh is one of my go-to artists for this. He obviously had mental illness; he cut off his own ear. But he also was able to see the world differently than anyone else and it allowed him to create beautiful works of art, being at the forefront of impressionism.

The fourth item that is not listed by Mayo Clinic but has led to a lot of mental illness is traumatic exposure: the soldier or law enforcement with PTSD, the kid who grew up in the hood having to trust no one and seeing members of his extended family killed in front of him on a regular basis, the child who grew up in an abusive home where they were beaten, tortured, and threatened by their parents for the sole reason that they existed.

Let’s think about these things for a minute. Does someone who went through something like that deserve to be mistreated or berated because of what they have going on from those experiences? No. When you know the story behind the person, often times it makes you want to help them. But behind all of what you might not understand, there is still a person.

Now that we’ve dealt with the stigma, let's come to reality. At the college level as well as most likely the high school level, you are likely to deal with people with mental illness. I personally have coached athletes who developed or had schizophrenia, anorexia, bipolar, and borderline personality disorder. Were they a little off? Yes. Absolutely. Were they a person who had inherent worth from the sole fact that they were a person? Yes.

We often make fun of or truly fear that which we do not understand. I know I did this when I was younger and thought or said things that make me cringe today. It wasn’t until I started to educate myself on what was going on that I understood and gained empathy. I remember the athlete who was schizophrenic (or schizo, as I said at the time), and would speak to people who weren't there and acted quite irrational at times. This might sound funny, but watching the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” which was the story of John Nash (a brilliant man who came up with Game Theory that influences much of what we do today — he won a Nobel Prize for God’s sake) gave me some insight into what he felt, what he saw, and what was going on with him. Talking to people who weren’t there, to him, was the same as if he was talking to me or one of the coaches. Did he require medication? Absolutely. If he went off of his meds, could it get dangerous? Yes again. But I had some understanding as to what was going on with him, how he could be thinking this, and why he acted the way he did.

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I recently read a book called “Cracked But Not Broken” by Kevin Hines, which details his personal story of a fight with Bipolar 1. He talks about his feelings, his mood swings, his dealings with his illness, and the voices he heard telling him he was no good and needed to go jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge and end it all. He decided to do just that, and then the moment his feet left the railing he realized that he had made a mistake and he didn’t really want to die. He was able to maneuver himself to a position that broke several of his bones and caused several internal injuries, but he lived. It makes me think to myself, “There is a very minuscule percentage of people who did that who have survived. What is the percentage of people who made the jump yet did not really want to die?” I have no idea and will never know. Here is what I do know from that book: I can empathize with what they are going through. I will never understand it fully, I hope to never experience it, but I have an idea. And having an idea takes it from, “Whoa, what the hell is that crazy guy doing?” to “Hey man, let’s have a chat. How are you doing?”

By learning perspective on these different illnesses, it allows for more empathy to develop.

I heard Andrea Hudy, the men’s basketball strength coach at University of Kansas, who has more rings than she has fingers (and maybe toes too), say, “When they deserve it the least, that’s when you need to love them the most.” You can’t believe how true this is.

Athletes are often acting out when they have issues. Petrie et al did a paper on the effects of social support on the ability to deal with stress and the incidence of injury. Petrie found that it was the athletes who had low levels of social support from home that often had the greatest amount of injuries with times of increasing life stress. They have no one to work through the issues with — no one to act as a safety net. They are all on their own and are essentially below Maslow’s bottom hierarchy of needs for safety.

There is no wonder that they are acting out. They have no social support, no safety net, and no safety often times in general. This is when they need the most love. This is when they need the most support. This is when you, as a coach, can make the most difference in their lives. People don’t act a certain way for no reason. This is the time when they need to be sat down and talked to, not screamed at. This is when they need the quiet room with someone that they know who cares about them, or is showing that they care about them. One question that I have is this: if coaches or other support staff members for a team act in a kinder, more caring way, will that be enough increase in social support to decrease their risk of injury? Would simply caring about an athlete keep them healthier and on the field? Would simply caring about an athlete allow them to move on to the next level, whatever that may be (higher up in sport or to a profession)? The answer is that I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

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The NCAA is making strides to bring mental health issues to the forefront, and I applaud them for this. I hope this comes to fruition. I think one of the first things that needs to happen is education of the coaching staff regarding not simply what to look for, but also how to treat them like people still, how to help them get the help they need, how to be there for them, how to create a social support structure for them, and how to get the coaches to have empathy. How can we help the athletes in their time of need rather than just push them farther down the rabbit hole?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know why I got into strength and conditioning. It was my passion for helping people and using weights as a vehicle or a platform for me to help them. I know I can’t reach everyone, but if I can help just one, that was one. I heard a statement once: “I may only be one, but I am one. I may not be able to do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” It was a statement by Edward Everett Hale in a book “A Beautiful Year of Thoughts” by Jeanie Ashley Bates Greenough, on page 172. Helen Keller had quoted it, but it was originally by Hale. If you are one, by doing something you can become many. And it is the voices of many, united as one, that can cause change.

The bottom line is that we need to help people, not hurt them. Weak people can go around ripping on people and putting them down. It takes the strength of the individual to go around and put out a hand and help people up and help people out. What are our job titles? Strength Coach? In my opinion, there is a reason for that.