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The Devastating Mix of Athletic Pressure and Hidden Depression

Sometimes there’s a young voice that finds their courage and tells their truth.

Michael Phelps, the off-the-charts Olympic swimmer, is one of those voices. He’s now talking openly about having depression and suicidal thoughts after the Olympic games and trying to persuade the U.S. Olympic committee to help athletes make the extremely difficult transition from the mindset needed to achieve and “normal” life. He tried to hide his confusion and depression for years, until it scared him too much.

He’s not alone.

Challenging the stereotype…

Isaiah Wilkins is also one of those voices. He’s a young college athlete from Virginia, a star defensive basketball player who struggles with depression. And he’s talking about it — not to receive accolades or prove how strong or resilient he is, but because he was the prejudice against mental illness to end.

He wants the world to realize that mental illness and competence can coexist, even though the pressure of being an athlete is immense. Dealing with the expectations of others, of fans who can be both loyal and lethal, of coaches whose need to win can supersede all others. Before Isaiah came Jay Guillermo of the Clemson Tigers and Victoria Garrick of USC Volleyball, both of whom have spoken of their own depression and anxiety — what Ms. Garrick calls the ‘hidden opponent” in this You Tube video.

These athletes’ mission overrides their desire or need for privacy. Instead, it’s an opportunity to model and teach that revealing struggles and talking about yourself honestly can help in the battle with your own inner demons.

It’s a challenge to the stereotype of an “athlete,” who’s not supposed to admit pain of any kind.

What I’ve found fascinating is that theirs aren’t stories of an amazing struggle with depression that they win hands down. They were successful in their sports life, and are continuing their own inner battles.

And that’s a vital message.

The risk of losing the inner battle…

The story isn’t always so optimistic.

In the recent bestseller, “What Made Maddy Run,” author Kate Fagan tries to help us understand a world where a beautiful, seemingly happy and successful Madison Holleran, an outstanding track star at Penn State, would jump off a building, killing herself instantly.

Coaches, parents and players need to be listening. Changing that culture will be very difficult. Perhaps they give attention and even support for these athletes being honest. But changing the sports culture to include an openness to mental health issues will be very difficult.

Jack Salt, a team member of Wilkins, was quoted in this excellent ESPN article;

There’s definitely a bad stigma that’s associated specifically with male sports, but your mind is so important in athletics. You can be the most talented athlete, but if you don’t have a good head set, you’re not going to get anywhere,” Salt said. “For him (Wilkins) and me, we just talk, say what’s on our mind, and I think that helps the team. If you go a little further than just talking about physical aspects of the game and go into mental things of how you’re feeling — some people think that’s stupid and that’s the stereotype that’s out there, but hopefully that will be gone soon and people will continue to open up and be real with each other.”

What it takes to change a culture…

In recent years, sports teams, coaches and trainers have been trying to wrap around medical issues with players. For example, concussion protocols are being used to try to prevent chances of CTE. I talked with a local mother and advocate, Rhonda Roseland Fincher, whose son died from the complications of heat stroke from a football practice in August of 1995, in Arkansas. She began the Kendrick Fincher Hydration For Life Foundation, trying to educate coaches and parents about the need to stay hydrated.

I asked her what kind of barriers she’d had to address — trying to get her message across.

After Kendrick died from heat stroke we began educating coaches, parents and athletes on proper hydration and heat illness prevention. Initially, there was hesitation from the coaches that we were working against them rather than with them. Once the coaches understood that we were educating to help keep athletes safe and also perform better, they embraced our educational programs. Now, sometimes our biggest challenges are parents that won’t speak up for fear their child will be treated differently if they complain, or youth that don’t want to appear weak from taking a water break. So, the process is continual through educating the parents, coaches and athletes to be sure they all understand the importance of proper hydration and work as a team to prevent heat illness.”

If that “weakness” is feared by parents and kids for a medical problem, I can only imagine how difficult it’s going to be to alter attitudes toward depression or anxiety.

It has to start with each one of us. Fighting stigma happens one person at a time.

Another kind of mental toughness…

My patients have come from all walks of life, with greatly varied professions and life stories, and substantially different political or spiritual beliefs.

Every time one of those people, man or woman, young or old, athlete or artist, begins to open up, begins to allow themselves to recognize and feel something that has been denied from their past or ignored in their present, and starts the slow but sure journey toward self-acceptance, my heart sings.

Change can happen one person at a time.

It’s a chain reaction. The first person seeks treatment and finds healing. That person has a son or a daughter, or grandchildren. That person has friends. And maybe, just maybe, that first person will tell the people that they love and care about that it’s not weak to accept all of you who are. Only then can you address what the real problem is.

That’s true mental toughness.

And that one person can move our entire culture forward — one win at a time.

If you wonder if you have Perfectly Hidden Depression, you can take this quiz  If you have either depression or PHD, please seek help from your doctor or a therapist.

If someone has been hanging in there with you for years, and loving you well, click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret!

You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”


The Devastating Mix of Athletic Pressure and Hidden Depression

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who's practiced in Fayetteville, Arkansas for twenty-five years. Her passion for researching Perfectly Hidden Depression began in 2014 and she's currently writing a book to be published next year by New Harbinger. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Mighty and The Good Men Project, among others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a blogger (Https:// and podcaster (SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford). She welcomes your questions and comments --

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APA Reference
Rutherford, D. (2018). The Devastating Mix of Athletic Pressure and Hidden Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 28 May 2018
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