Opening up about my mental health connected with others and elucidated some elements of the sport that need more attention.
October 7, 2020 by Ben Banyas in Opinion with 0 comments
In August, Ari Nelson wrote an article for our Clear Cut series, “You Think You Know Me But You Don’t,” sharing openly about her struggles with mental health and how they have impacted her relationship with ultimate and the ultimate community. That essay spurred a few other elite players to write in with similar stories, opening up about their own experiences. We share these stories to present different perspectives on the ways mental health struggles can affect those playing this sport and what it might take to create a safe, inclusive space for everyone.
Ultimate has been the saving grace of my life. It gives me a community that accepts and celebrates its members in a way I had never experienced before. I continue to find the best friends and relationships I’ll ever have. It gives me confidence, the desire to keep my body healthy, opportunities to learn and lead with amazing people, and a venue to teach, inspire, and support people who haven’t had the same privileges I have.
But perhaps the biggest impact is when I was walking to a bridge to jump off in 2014, I decided to go into the ER instead. I had called a friend I met through ultimate in 2003 and I couldn’t bear the thought that she’d wake up to my missed call and find out I had killed myself. I thought of that because of a story another ultimate player shared where that had happened to them.
Before 2014, ultimate figuratively saved my life. Since 2014, it has literally saved my life.
For those of you who aren’t from Pittsburgh and haven’t met me through playing or coaching, you might have heard about me because I #throweveryday, forever trying to recoup my throwing abilities lost to a broken elbow. It would be reasonable to assume that that’s what this article is about — how a devastating injury impacted my mental health — because that is a very common thing that we don’t talk about or understand enough. That’s not my story, though. My mental health struggles go back far before that.
I remember always having a feeling that I wanted to run away from things, that I couldn’t handle them. In sixth grade, I told my parents I wanted to kill myself. My family was working class — not the poorest, but definitely unable to afford therapy, and in a culture where “personal strength and responsibility” were most important. It wouldn’t be until I was in my late-20s that I would finally get to therapy and begin to learn about what I had been dealing with my entire life.
From 2010-2017, I was treated for depression, bi-polar disorder, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. Initially, the primary focus of my therapy was to lower my stress levels, some of which existed because I took on too many roles in ultimate to be able to handle them effectively or healthily. In addition, I am a recovering gambling addict and often self-medicated with alcohol, leading me to have some very bad nights and do things I will always regret. It’s very common for addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness to intertwine and feed into each other. I am fortunate that I have been able to kick both of those habits — I have not gambled since 2010 and I stopped drinking in 2015.
In 2012 and 2013, I was in the room when two of my grandparents died — even holding my grandmother’s hand when she passed. I had already been dealing with financial troubles and was without health insurance. At the time, I didn’t realize how much these issues would impact me over the next few months. This was all compounded by the fact that I was living far away from my friends, community, and ultimate, and in a very toxic relationship. Without healthcare, financial stability, and my support system, my mental health spiraled over the years and I became suicidal. I hid from it, and hid it from others. Then came the aforementioned night I walked to the bridge.
After 15 hours in the psych ward, I was fortunate enough to be matched with a therapist who I felt comfortable with and could trust. She helped me understand what I was dealing with and that, for many people, there’s no getting rid of our mental health struggles, but we can learn how to manage them. She gave me the tools I needed to recognize how mental illness impacted me and to be healthy despite it.
After learning how to step back from some things, I was able to tackle how stress and panic controlled me. I learned about how much I was affected by Imposter Syndrome/Phenomenon. Mental illness has many facets and takes many tools to manage. One thing I found that is very helpful is to be as open as possible about my struggles. Posting on social media and communicating directly with people about my struggles made me feel better with who I am and also resulted in an outpouring of love that I didn’t even realize how much I needed.
Many also shared that it surprised them because I always seemed so happy. That’s the thing, folks — mental illness affects everyone differently. It shows through daily sadness or irritation for some. For others, it’s ups and downs over periods of time. For many, we have gotten so good at hiding what’s happening on the inside — through fear, doubt, or self-preservation — that you would have no idea on the outside.
Another unintended consequence of my public openness is that people started contacting me when they had mental health struggles – friends, players I coached, and complete strangers. Many told me that they didn’t know what to do or who to talk to, but they heard me share my struggles so they felt like I could be someone who could understand and maybe help them. I am not a mental health professional, so the first thing to do in this scenario is to find out if there is an emergency and provide resources for how they can get professional help. After that, I try to be a friend that they can trust and come to. I never realized that by sharing how close I came to ending things, it would give someone who is going down the same road a lifeline.
Very few things are unique to ultimate. Other than self-officiation at the highest levels and the flight of the disc, I can’t really think of anything about ultimate or our community that doesn’t also exist in other places. However, just because something isn’t unique to ultimate doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility as a community to recognize it and understand its impact within our sport. I want to call out a few elements of ultimate as it exists today that I believe are causing or at least exacerbating existing mental health issues for those who participate in our sport.
The first thing is our over-reliance on volunteers for all aspects of the sport — and mainly the same volunteers. A common trait for people who volunteer to organize, to lead, and to put in work is to fill all the gaps and take up positions when no one else will. Through ignorance or avoidance, most people in ultimate allow this to happen, reaping the benefits of our volunteers’ hard work while often being critical without seeking to understand, and even less-so trying to step up themselves. This creates a cycle that is seemingly never-ending for volunteers, leading many of them to want/have to give up that work (or the sport) altogether — or worse, suffer debilitating mental health issues. I believe that there are two important things we need to focus on to improve this situation:
- More of us need to step up to provide work and resources that create and sustain the experiences we want to happen.
- Individuals who take on too much need the resources, ability, and willingness to be able to say no and ask for help when they need it.
A second thing I think we need to be better about recognizing within ultimate is the role that team and community leaders play in supporting or hurting mental health. As one who has held many leadership positions and has a loud voice within this community, I admit that I have often failed. While it is true that I have been able to help many people with mental health issues, I also have blank spots that have failed others. Despite my best intentions, I have not always been the most comforting and approachable person, coach, captain, and teammate.
Failure is a fact of life. It sucks — big time. Leaders never want to fail or disappoint their teams — it’s part of what makes them leaders to begin with — but they aren’t always able to recognize or admit that they aren’t equipped to handle every situation. Learning from my own experience, leaders in this community have to recognize which approaches and efforts work for which people and which ones don’t, then learn and grow from those experiences. As someone with a long history of leadership positions, I have to take a good, hard look at situations that present themselves in the future, be fully open about what I’ve been for people in the past (good and bad), and recognize where my successes show that I might be in a position to help and where my failures show I’m not the right person for the job. Most important of all, lead with compassion and forgiveness. Things that help some people may not help others.
With everything I’ve learned through therapy and my experiences, I have tried my best to recognize and be understanding when others have mental health struggles. I have emphasized that we need to end the stigma, and that it’s not only OK to be open, vulnerable, and seek treatment, but that it is good. We need to turn “It’s OK to go to therapy” into “it’s good to go to therapy;” “it’s OK to cry” needs to become “it’s good to cry;” “it’s OK to ask for help” needs to be “it’s good to ask for help.” While this is important for all teams and players, I want to call out to Open, Men’s, and Boys’ teams, especially: understanding our emotions and dealing with mental health struggles is often ridiculed as being “soft,” that we just need to toughen up. Folks, we can still be hardworking and disciplined while helping our teammates emotionally at the same time. Team leaders, I’d encourage you to model this behavior.
The last element of the ultimate community I want to call out is that currently we really don’t know that much about mental health. In order to be the best teammate, opponent, leader, and community member, be willing to ask, listen, research, and learn. Mental health struggles affect people in different ways. They show up differently. Be compassionate and forgive yourself and others, and understand that we’re all going to make mistakes while we learn because failure is part of learning.
I think the most important advice I would give to people who think they may be experiencing mental health problems is to be open with someone you trust. Even if it’s scary, call a hotline or a warmline. Just as I mentioned above, be compassionate and forgive yourself. Do the same for others. Sometimes, it takes time to find a mental health professional and support system that works well with you, but keep with it. You’ll find the right people. But the first step is reaching out — you have the strength to do it, and if you think no one is there for you, well, I’ve got your back. My number is (412) 417-6339.
The love of the people in the ultimate community has saved my life and inspired me to be the best person I can be. Let’s build a more open, supporting, and compassionate environment where everyone can feel this.