Dr. Alexander Cohen, senior sport psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee and a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, is working to close the gap and erase the stigma surrounding mental health from athletic cultures.
“Many athletes are very driven, resilient, high-achieving people, and they spend a lot of their time overcoming challenges. This is often a good quality that’s helped them find success, but it can also be a barrier when asking for help,” he says.
Unfortunately, Cohen explains this phenomenon can be especially present among men, who often suffer from societal pressures to stay quiet about pain.
“There’s often an emphasis on mental toughness, and in general we are taught to suffer in silence,” Cohen says. “In our culture, there are a lot of barriers to asking for help, some of which are unique to men.”
Cohen says those barriers can include a lack of knowledge in regard to accessing resources or a general confusion about what terms like “counseling” mean. But oftentimes the hesitancy comes more from embarrassment or perceiving mental illness as a weakness.
“There’s also this ‘should be’ mentality. I ‘should be’ able to handle it. I ‘should be’ tougher than that,” Cohen explains. “I try to show athletes that addressing it is really just another way to build strength. The goal is to help athletes overcome mental illness much the same way they recover from a physical injury. It should be no different.”
Not only has Cohen worked with elite and professional athletes for decades, he says he knows the feeling intimately. As a collegiate athlete, it was his own struggles with competitive anxiety that led him to the field of sport psychology.
“I was a lacrosse player in college, and one of my coaches said, ‘Hey, you’re getting in your own way.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I took a sport psychology class. Right away, I knew I wanted to help athletes with mental wellness and performance readiness,” he says. “Part of the reason I do this work is because I wish I had a sport psychologist in college.”
The good news, Cohen says, is that progress was made in the last few years, and athletes seem less fearful of what others—mainly coaches and peers—think. He credits many famous athletes that have come out publicly about their struggles with mental health, including basketball player Kevin Love and Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt. He also sees huge benefit coming from national campaigns, such as the Movember Foundation, for focusing on all types of men’s health issues.
“It’s just important to have conversations that matter and services that work for men. Call it coaching instead of counseling if you have to,” he says. “We just have to normalize the experience. It’s our responsibility to create a culture where psychological issues are talked about as readily as physical injuries.”
How to spot mental health issues:
Look at patterns of thought and behaviors. Typical symptoms can include:
- A change in eating or sleeping habits
- Withdrawn behavior or isolation
- Excessive irritability, fear or worry
- Self-harm or
- Self-destructive habits
- Talk of death or dying
How to address concern:
If an athlete talks to you, that means there is a level of trust. It’s important to respect that when having conversations about mental health.
- Try and make them feel safe.
- Validate their response from a place of compassion and care.
- Just listen; you don’t need to solve or fix the problem.
- If you’re the one approaching them, give examples. For instance: “You haven’t been eating or sleeping the same.”
- Provide resources or information if you can.
- If they reject help, don’t take it personally.
- Ask questions about their personal safety. If they say anything about harming themselves, seek emergency help right away.