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Local psychologists talk breaking down stigma on mental health for student-athletes

Posted at 9:18 PM, Dec 11, 2019

The pressure to perform is high for student-athletes. It starts in middle school and can last into professional careers.

It doesn't matter if you are a world-class athlete who has experienced the most gratifying feeling sports can offer. Even the best deal with the worst.

On November 24th, Philadelphia Eagles guard and Milwaukee native Brandon Brooks left a game when he became overwhelmed by anxiety.

He later tweeted that his "typical routine of morning vomiting" left him exhausted and he had to leave adding he was not ashamed or embarrassed.

Brooks is one of several professional athletes who are open and honest about their struggles with mental health.

It's helping break down the stigma for student-athletes in southeast Wisconsin.

Cedarburg high school psychologist, Pat Sorenson, is just one of many throughout the state.

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"Every day's a little bit different as a school psychologist," said Sorenson. "You can very easily get blown out the water with different crises or emergencies."

As the school's former soccer coach, he worked with athletes on and off the field.

"Get to know them on an individual level and be attentive to what's going on with them."

He says kids today are more open than ever.

"I would say even more than 10 years ago, kids are more willing to talk things through. The stigma of mental health and illness is breaking down."

A recent survey from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction found 40% of high school students reported high levels of anxiety. 27% reported depression. Left untreated, that lingers with them into college.

At UW-Milwaukee, sports psychologist Barbara Meyer and senior associate athletics director Kathy Litzau have made it their mission to meet the mental needs of their athletes.

"We try to understand what they are thinking and feeling," said Meyer. "Is that related to sports performance? Or is that translating or to other areas of their life like school, family, work and so forth?"

While UWM is certainly ahead of the game when it comes to providing resources, it doesn't mean it's any easier for an individual to come to terms with mental illness.

"Nobody wants to fail and I think when they address life in general and there are so many buckets that teens and young adults face that we all face," said Litzau. "They feel like mental health... they should be able to control it and when they can't, they think they've failed."

This is exactly why it's important to continue the conversation and the narrative that it's okay to not be okay.

"I would encourage people to take the first step," said Meyer. "It's hard to look yourself in the mirror and say you know what I'm not feeling right, but speak up, tell someone, and take that first step."