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What Can Two Penn Athletes Teach Doctors About Mental Health?

The following article was published originally on our sister-site, The “Almost” Doctor’s Channel, a website dedicated to bringing medically relevant information to pre-meds, medical students, residents, and other training healthcare professionals as an adjunct to their education. It can be seen here at almost.thedoctorschannel.com.

I graduated in May from The University of Pennsylvania. I was pre-med, president of my a cappella group, vice president of marketing for my sorority, a tutor, a mentor…stress was not a stranger to me. Despite the pressure of preparing for, and applying to, medical school there was one thing I didn’t have to deal with – the daily practices, training sessions, games, meets and matches that being a college athlete means not only attending but performing in optimally. While I was not a varsity athlete myself, I dated one for a good part of college and was exposed to, if only vicariously, the stress that comes along with trying to perform your best academically and athletically –this, while still making time for people you care about, the hobbies you promised yourself you’d keep up with in college, and most importantly, your own mental health.

As I’m sure many have seen through various social media outlets in the earlier half of this week, last weekend, University of Pennsylvania Track Team member, Madison Holleran, took her life by jumping off of a Center City, Philadelphia parking garage. She was said to have left a note for her parents as well as a gift for each member of her family. I am not claiming to be a reporter — I am only telling you what I read in various news stories. And while I feel a perhaps unwarranted connection to this young girl, attributed maybe only to the fact that we share an alma mater, Madison’s actions have highlighted something that runs deeper.

Whilst perusing Instagram in the days following Madison’s incident, I came across a powerful statement written by another female athlete whom I had known in college:

After experiencing two suicides in the athletic community at Penn within four years, my stance on the matter remains clear: universities need to do a better job at providing supports for student athletes and educating them on mental health. We have strength coaches, nutritionists, tutors, etc. But we continue to neglect mental health as a society, and regard it as a ‘touchy’ subject. Athletes, coaches, and administrators should feel safe to discuss these pressing matters that often affect too many of us student athletes. Keeping Penn athletics, friends and family in my thoughts.

The other suicide to which she is referring is that of Owen Thomas who, within weeks of being made captain of UPenn’s football team, hung himself in his campus house. After completing his autopsy, scientists found that Owen had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, “a disease linked to depression and impulse control primarily among N.F.L. players, two of whom also committed suicide in the last 10 years.”

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While it is unlikely that Madison had the same disease, the link between these two well-liked, successful, and smart young adults is in the form of a question: “Could they have been helped?”

Unfortunately, many news articles covering the issue have taken the tone of: “But she was so beautiful, and popular..” but he was “so popular, and was just made captain.” It reminds me of the psychological phenomena I learned through several of my psychology courses: the “Beautiful is good” hypothesis and the “Halo effect,” the former being the assumption that physically attractive people have superior personalities and the latter being the assumption that how someone appears on the outside must reflect their inner qualities. I am not saying that both Madison and Owen were not smart, funny, talented, and well-liked, but rather that it would be impossible to know this from seeing only a picture. We are taught, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “Success does not equal happiness.” We must look past a person’s exterior to uncover the beauty within and we are often surprised that what is inside is even more beautiful.

It is hard to know if these athletes were aware of the severity of their mental illness or whether they would have aggressively sought out counseling if it was provided by the university. The same holds true for medical schools — though most students focus primarily on coursework and research and may not have the added stress of athletics, the light-hearted but very true “drinking water from a fire hose” can place tremendous stress on students. The message rings loudly: we need to de-stigmatize mental illness, especially in our youth, and universities, who most closely handle young adults in their formative years, may be where we should start. As future healthcare providers it is our responsibility to view depression as seriously as a broken arm, to treat bipolar disorder with the same haste in which we would complete an angioplasty, and to realize that, like any disease, mental illnesses have causes, signs and symptoms and thus, by very definition, treatments.

Note: Thanks for all the support with this piece. I decided to do a follow-up last night – An Addendum: It’s Time to Get Real About Suicide in the Healthcare Field. I’d humbly ask that you continue sharing this very important message with your friends and family. And if you or people you know have personal stories or insights to share on this topic, our inbox is always open at almostdocs@thedoctorschannel.com. Thanks again!

– Rachel Greenberg, “Almost” MD, editor for almost.thedoctorschannel.com.