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The Hidden Opponent: student-athletes and stigma surrounding mental health

When someone sprains an ankle or breaks their wrist, it is visible to the naked eye, with players and trainers working towards rehabilitation in an effort to return that athlete to the field as soon as possible. However, unlike a physical injury, damage to one’s psyche is more or less invisible on the surface, obscuring pain and strife from coaches, teammates and larger social circles. Mental struggles therefore become the “hidden opponent,” presenting themselves as major obstacles for athletes who have been taught to put their sport first, push their bodies beyond healthy or manageable limits and play through injury. It is this stigma of weakness and inadequacy that accompanies mental health in the context of sport, as the cutthroat nature of collegiate athletics preaches strength and perseverance in the face of all adversity.

Victoria Garrick, a former NCAA Division I volleyball player at the University of Southern California, recognized this double standard through personal experience. Within the female student-athlete community, Garrick has increasingly become a household name, as she has come to the forefront of advocacy within the realm of mental health and body-image concerns as described above. In 2017, she gave a TEDTalk titled “Athletes and Mental Health: The Hidden Opponent,” using this platform to share her story of great athletic and academic success that ultimately culminated in a major depressive episode, one that is not so uncommon amongst others belonging to this specific population. It was not until hearing Garrick’s story that Sabrina Salov ’22, a member of the Brandeis women’s soccer team, felt particularly validated and not alone in her own experiences with an eating disorder, piquing her interest in learning more about Garrick’s work in diminishing mental health stigma for student-athletes like herself.

Salov has recently undertaken a leadership role through Garrick’s non-profit, The Hidden Opponent, whose mission states, “we are an advocacy group that raises awareness for student-athlete mental health and addresses the stigma within sports culture. We empower athletes around the world to face the hidden opponent together.” As a “Campus Captain,” Salov is able to share this powerful message with those at Brandeis, as she looks to start a variety of mental health initiatives that will bring awareness to the stigma present in our own community. Outside of the university, Salov is also the organization’s regional leader in New England, working to manage and distribute information to other Campus Captains in the area.

“I have gone through my fair share of mental health struggles relating to my value, identity, and purpose as an athlete,” emphasizing that she too was not exempt from the pressures and high stakes that thrive in sports culture, Salov wrote to The Brandeis Hoot in an email. 

“I never saw my mental health as an obstacle in my performance until this past year when I began to no longer see soccer as an escape,” mentioning spells of anxiety that accompanied her on the field and subsequently permeated her everyday life, she explained. This led to issues with sleep, eating and an eventual loss of drive and ambition for the sport she had grown up loving. “I have always internalized and suppressed my struggles, like all athletes are taught to do… [but] when I started seeing a therapist weekly, I learned that sharing my story will not only help others find their power, but also assist me in my recovery as well.”

So, Salov has made it her mission to spread the message of the organization to other student-athletes embarking on their own mental health journeys, using her personal experiences to shed light on the significance of prioritizing one’s own well-being within the world of sport. 

“The one piece of advice that any student-athlete should remember when dealing with mental health struggles is to not be afraid to be vulnerable or ask for help,” she wrote to The Hoot. “It is important to remember the power of support and guidance in tackling any problem at hand.” 

She recommends that at Brandeis, we as students and student-athletes actively engage with what is available to us on campus, including the services offered by the Brandeis Counseling Center (BCC), as well as a new student-run group called Body Positive Brandeis. When facing these challenges head-on, Salov shares that she is able to be a better teammate, friend and person, using this collection of resources as a means to support her endeavors to defy stigma and break down the barriers that separate student-athletes from help-seeking.

“Maintaining mental health is so important to all identities I hold, as one cannot truly help or show up for others if not for themselves first,” commenting that taking care of both the mind and the body as a whole is a pertinent priority for herself. With that idea in mind, Salov expresses her gratitude for The Hidden Opponent, recognizing its ability to allow student-athletes to feel seen, heard and supported. As she continues her work with this platform, she concludes, “I only hope that it can assist others within their personal experiences and remind them of their power. I will always be an ally and a voice for those struggling.”

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