GENESEO, N.Y. — The sounds of her teammates and the splashes from the pool bring a smile to Megan Palmer's face.
It's her first time back on the blocks for a practice swim in a few weeks since an illness sidelined her. In years past, that would have been enough to make her anxious about how much work she had to put in just to get back to her PB (personal best.) But now, she swims easily, happy to be back, swimming for herself.
"It’s our life,” Palmer said. “It’s what we love. And a lot of times you want to perform to the best of your ability for those people. And because you fell in love with that game or that sport at an early age, sometimes that pressure gets too much."
The mental health of student athletes is something Megan's more aware of than ever. She overlooked it through the first half of her life.
"We have been asked since the young age of like 5 or 6 to push through everything mentally and physically," she said.
Megan admits she suffers from anxiety and OCD. She recognizes it was born in the early success she had as an athlete, from being a rocket-armed shortstop who earned four varsity letters and All Greater Rochester status at Fairport High, to her record-breaking interscholastic career as a varsity swimmer
"The success that I had early on and to live up to, that you know I always had to do, like, everything perfect. And it was just weighed down on me a lot, and I honestly, like, really struggled," said Palmer. "I had always just to push through everything not even giving a thought to anything else like how I was feeling. It was just about the score, about the game, about the race."
Sports psychologists see the pressure rise in student athletes as they climb the ranks of their individual sports. New research shows one in five collegiate athletes suffers from anxiety, depression or another form of mental health challenge.
"When you get into real sports athletes there’s always that need an urge to be number one, you know, bringing the name for the school,” said Tharaha Thavakumar, a mental health therapist. “So it’s a huge anxiety and stressor for them. And they love it. And some people do love traveling. But I think it’s just trying to find that balance. If we are putting pressure for the kids to do well, we should also give them some space to actually take a break."
The break for Megan can come from her emotional support cat, Phinneas, or swim team housemates at SUNY Geneseo. And while she keeps up with her studies, Meg also contributes to Geneseo student athlete mentoring program, or SAM.
"I think it's great and it really helps," said Palmer.
Six times a year, she and 32 other SUNY Geneseo upperclassmen will meet up with four or five first-year students assigned to them. They help them understand why it’s not just enough to tough it out when mental illness challenges you.
Megan knows most will want to obscure their feelings at first
"You don’t want to share them because they’ll be overlooked,” she said. “And, like, we’re expected to push through so you don’t want to like look weak."
"It’s OK to not be OK," said Lauren Sposili, a student athlete mentor.
"They’re always there,” said SUNY Geneseo freshman Jordan Nielsen. “They like to talk to you. Make you sure you’re on the right track. Like, he’ll ask us to push through. Especially since it’s been a hard year with COVID. We always have each other."
"So just having our athletes have someone to talk to his outside of their team to give them an extra perspective is really great," SAM student coordinator Angela Van Pelt said
"I think that as a society we have that right like we always have to be number one in whatever we do,” said Thavakumar. “So that competition is always there. That anxiety is always there. I’ve been just trying to realize that we are putting that pressure on, right? Like where do we want our sports to go?"
For more information on sports and mental health, and to learn about resources available near you, head to athletesforhope.org.