In an opening remarks to 75 young women at the LEAD Sports Summit in Austin, Texas, five-time Olympic gold medalist, Missy Franklin, spoke about her struggles with depression. The event was designed to empower female athletes in academics, sport and life, and her openness about depression makes her awesome-er than she already is.
Franklin explains that two months before the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials she was diagnosed with depression, insomnia, anxiety and an eating disorder.
In August 2017, Vice reported, Third of Women Student-Athletes Have Mental Health Problems, referring to a 2016 study, where about 30 percent of surveyed female student-athletes showed signs of depression, compared to just 18 percent of their male counterparts. It’s unclear exactly why women athletes appear more susceptible to mental illness than men. But, the story acknowledged the unique challenges women face in the pursuit to be strong, successful, competitive, healthy, and resilient athletes. They include higher risk of disordered eating to falling prey to the female athlete triad, which the NIH describes as “an interrelationship of menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability (with or without an eating disorder), and decreased bone mineral density.” Women with the triad have increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and various anxiety disorders.
As a competitive swimmer, I lost my period during swim season. I essentially got my period once a year, during the off-season. I saw a primary care and Ob/gyn about it and was told that menstrual irregularity was a normal for female athletes. In order to regulate my cycle, I was put on birth control. Easy fix, right? Wrong. For any woman, like myself, genetically prone or showing signs of depression, anxiety and mood swings, hormone-containing contraceptives can magnify symptoms. And did it ever.
Women who participate in endurance sports or sports that emphasize leanness are more likely to experience menstrual irregularities. Eating a healthful diet and being careful not to over-exercise can help prevent this. My point is, we need to do better at understanding the unique challenges we face as female athletes, take better care of our mind and bodies, and expand what it means to be strong.
I wanted to treat mental health like any other muscle in my body. The message I internalized was to push through injury, work harder than teammates, and outrace opponents. But mental illness is not a choice or something that can be fixed. Swimming, like other endurance sports, can be a very solitary sport, with countless hours spent underwater, alone with your thoughts. And when those thoughts are highly self-critical, I felt routinely beat down physically as well as mentally.
But, I persevered.
Franklin speaks of perseverance: “Being tough, and being a fighter,” she says, “meant I came out the other end being successful.” She admits, this definition of perseverance was shallow. What does success mean?
Franklin adds that we all should strive for our own definitions of success. And I think that is the important message here. When we spend a lot of time observing the success of others, or following programs built for others, we blindly compete in a never-ending race. But, we can choose to compete with self-awareness of our own unique challenges and with purpose.
Therefore, I applaud the spotlight we cast on female athletes, the struggles they face, and their openness to talk about it. Because, Franklinly, they are awesome.