Mind, body and sport: Addressing the mental health challenges student athletes face

SPOKANE, Wash. – Former West Valley Eagle Rachel McGlothlen was a multi-sport star who went on to be a part of two national championships with the University of Washington rowing team. 

She is someone who knows firsthand the difficulties of mental health for young athletes. 

“I was very athletic growing up. I was always getting that reassurance and validation from others and that’s something I struggled with tremendously when I got to UW because all of the sudden, I was a very small fish in a very big lake and my mental health was impacted by that,” McGlothlen said. 

She said she has always struggled with anxiety and depression, but it shifted in college and was nearly overwhelming. 

“What I was experiencing in collegiate athletics was just this over-arching kind of feeling of doom, like I’m never gonna be as fast as I want to be, but I am pushing as hard as I can,” McGlothlen said. 

It was a burden that needed help, but even knowing her coaches would be there, McGlothlen admits she did not want them to look at her differently as an athlete. So, she had to go to someone else. 

“So, I went to one of the team docs and said ‘Hey look, I don’t think I’m doing so well. Can I get some help?’ And we talked through it. It was such a wonderful guide and they got me a therapist,” McGlothlen said. 

A therapist that helped her see exactly what she was dealing with, even if that thing wouldn’t make a lot of sense to those outside the sports world. 

“That’s kind of when I first got that diagnosis of, I have situational depression from college athletics, which is such a thought because so many people, athletics are just all nice and sweet with a little cherry on top, but the athletes themselves go through so much,” she said. 

There was a massive shift in her time at UW that certainly was catapulted by the stunning news coming out of their rival school. 

“So when the Hilinski situation happened, it was a shell shock for even the athletes at UW. We’re rivals, but mental health transcends all of that, we’re all student athletes,” McGlothlen said. 

McGlothlen and another athlete at UW helped form the first mental health program in the school’s athletics department. “The Pac” is a safe place to talk to other athletes who might understand what they are going through. 

“It wasn’t that all the sudden more people were experiencing it, those people are experiencing it no matter what, just is there a platform now to talk about it?” McGlothlen said. 

And what she has learned through the resources provided to her as a student-athlete is how important it is to have that safe space to communicate. 

“I think opening the space for male athletes as well, cause there is this image around athletes in general having to be strong and tough, which is a misconception,” McGlothlen said. “It’s never bad to talk about suicide if you’re seeing signs, it’s not going to make someone more likely to complete that, that’s what research shows, so always opening the space to be vulnerable, to be honest, and transparent with it cause that will help tremendously in the long run.”