More than a game; why mental health is an issue for athletes and how you can help

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WHEELING, W.Va. (WTRF) – All day Friday, athletes were running up and down the court at WesBanco Arena. 

Their goal? To win the Cancer Research Classic. 

The event always promotes men’s health, but this year it’s even more than just a game. This year it’s tackling mental health and drug abuse, two of the biggest issues facing athletes at any level. 

The question is why?

To answer that we first have to break the stigma that surrounds being an athlete. 

We’ve been told as athletes, tough it out. Be a man.

Dr. Gregory Merrick, CRC Director

Which is one of the reasons there’s a stigma if an athlete needs help with something other than an injury, like mental health. 

Basketball is the greatest game ever, but it’s more than a game. We have a responsibility to the young people that we coach and develop to ensure that when the basketball stops bouncing that they’re ready for the next stage in life.

Dr. Gregory Merrick, CRC Director

Dr. Merrick said 25% of student-athletes in the NCAA have clinical depression significant enough to benefit from therapy. In fact, it’s their number one health and safety concern. 

I love basketball, but at the same time I struggled heavily with obsessive compulsive symptoms when I played and I didn’t even know I had OCD when I played. Part of what I do now is an advocate is say you don’t need to quit your sport. You can get help for it while you’re playing.

Ian Johnson, Former Basketball Player, Author and Advocate

The issue is a culture that doesn’t ask for help, but all involved say the way to fix it is to instead create a culture of acceptance, where athletes can go to parents or coaches if they’re mentally struggling. 

There’s a great line that I like to use that says ‘we’re all a little bit crazy at times’. Everybody experiences trauma. Everybody feels sad, feels depressed sometimes. It’s ok.

Ian Johnson, Former Basketball Player, Author “The Bounce and the Echo…Dying to Love a Game” and Advocate

Right behind mental health, are issues with drugs.

What is already a problem in adolescents is amplified in student-athletes. 

Drugs, there’s not reason for any young person to do drugs. Marijuana is a neurotoxin and it adversely affects the development of the brain.

Dr. Gregory Merrick, CRC Director

Dr. Merrick also said there are misconceptions about the effects of drugs on athletes. Some of which author Alex Berenson points out.

It’s not safer that alcohol. That it’s become more dangerous in the last decade or two because the levels of THC have gone up. That it’s not a safe substitute for opioids. I think there are some professional athletes that are sending the wrong messages about this. In some cases cause they genuinely believe it. In some cases because they have companies and are trying to make money from selling cannabis.

Alex Berenson, Author, “Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence”

Dr. Merrick and all those involved with the Cancer Research Classic encourage athletes who may be struggling with their mental health to not be afraid to approach a coach or a family member.

Asking for help doesn’t mean you aren’t tough. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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