Invisible Illness in Sports

It is easy to feel empathy for athletes who get physical injuries, however the topic of invisible illness in athletics is rarely talked about. An invisible illness is one that is not visibly apparent; most mental illnesses are invisible illnesses. Because there are often few physical symptoms that come with mental illness, it can be hard to identify individuals who are struggling with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or most other mental health issues.

Invisible illnesses can pose many challenges, including a fluctuation in severity of feelings. Some days are easy, while others come with an overwhelming amount of emotions. These feelings can persist for days, weeks or even months. For athletes struggling with mental illness, these sudden shifts in emotion can affect practices, workouts, diets, and overall game performance. There is no way for an individual to control every emotion, therefore it is imperative that teammates, coaches and friends of athletes struggling with mental health issues be understanding and willing to help in any way they can.

Common Misconceptions about Invisible Illnesses

  • The way a person looks reflects how they are feeling
    • Someone may have taken time to put on makeup or a nice outfit, however this does not mean they are feeling well internally.
  • Rest will make an individual with mental health issues feel better
    • Rest can occasionally be helpful, however this does not guarantee a good day due to how much emotions fluctuate.
  • If an individual is smiling, they must feel okay
    • Do not assume that a smile or laugh means an individual is symptom free. Many people have learned to mask their emotions, however this does not mean they are feeling well.

How to Support those with Invisible Illnesses

  • Take time to talk with them and learn about their illness. The more you learn, the better you will be able to understand them and show empathy.
  • Spend time with them when they need it and give them space when they want it.
  • Try not to get frustrated if they distance themselves, most of the time it has nothing to do with you. Many mental illnesses can become socially isolating, so make sure you are checking in on your friends!

As an ally to those with invisible illnesses, it is imperative that you listen to individuals without judgement. Everyone experiences thoughts and emotions in their own unique way. Additionally, it is important to remember that individuals with invisible illnesses do not want to talk about it all the time. If you are a teammate, coach or friend of someone with mental illness, I encourage you to make an effort to check in with them weekly so you know how best support them.


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