In Their Own Words: A different kind of balancing act

In Their Own Words: A different kind of balancing act

Matt Melo, Fifth Year, Trent Excalibur Cross Country

The life of a student-athlete is a balancing act between academics and athletics, it’s simply in the title given to you when you commit to playing sports at the collegiate level. This includes attending classes and handing in assignments while working towards a post-secondary degree, as well as training both physically and mentally to represent your school in competition. This is a balance that is difficult, but is expertly managed by thousands of athletes across the OUA. Many of the student-athletes who compete in sport throughout their post-secondary education will continue throughout their lives whilst maintaining great mental health due to the amazing benefits that has been scientifically linked between a healthy active lifestyle and positive mental health. Unfortunately, 1 in 5 Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness within their lifetime and student-athletes are not exempt from this statistic. One of the aspects of my particular story as a student-athlete attending Trent University, both positive and negative, is that I represent one of those individuals with a mental illness. In this story I will explain how this has influenced my five-year student-athlete career within the OUA.  

“Mental illness is not an all-consuming and life ending diagnosis, however”

One important distinction that I would like to make for readers who are unfamiliar with how mental health works is the difference between mental health and mental illness. This distinction is important as it will provide insight into how mental health affects all Canadians, not just the individuals represented by the statistic. Mental health exists on a spectrum and is something that is universal to all humans. Everyone experiences mental health, positive or negative, throughout their lives every single day. Mental health is comprised of one’s emotional and mental state, which dictates how one falls on the spectrum of mental health. This ranges from an individual feeling overjoyed and extremely positive to feelings of despair or even simply somewhere in between. It is important that people know that this spectrum exists so that they can sort out whether intense or prolonged negative feelings are a sign of poor mental health at that moment, or warning signs of mental illness. Mental illness can be characterized as the umbrella of a wide range of mental health conditions or disorders that affect your emotions, thoughts and behaviours. It is caused by a complicated relationship of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors throughout one’s life. Mental illness is not an all-consuming and life ending diagnosis, however. Many individuals live complete and normal lives whilst managing their mental illness with the use of supports like therapy and medication.

From the start of my student-athlete career I have experienced mental illness. From the time I was a young teen I have been seeking aid from health care professionals for my battle with depression. It was not until I reached the midway point of my time here at Trent that the team of medical professionals and services that I have access to started to question if major depressive disorder was the correct diagnosis for what I was experiencing. Up until this point my life as a student-athlete was not so dissimilar to anyone else’s, with the exception of the dark thoughts and feelings that I would regularly experience on a daily basis. This was pretty normal to me at this point in my life and I remember not feeling disadvantaged or different from many of my other teammates. I was managing my sleeping schedule and making sure I was getting enough food and water to keep myself nourished during the intensive training that accompanies the life of a student athlete. However, during my fourth year of university everything started to change. With this change came a new diagnosis that set me back on a personal level due to the implications that I perceived would follow

“The feelings and difficulties that accompanied this diagnosis immediately altered the landscape of my student-athlete lifestyle”

During the fall semester of school and the very beginning of the collegiate cross country season I was diagnosed with unspecified bipolar disorder. About 1% of Canadians will experience bipolar disorder in their lifetime. Bipolar disorder can be characterized as experiencing a cyclical pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic or manic episodes within a given time period. The feelings and difficulties that accompanied this diagnosis immediately altered the landscape of my student-athlete lifestyle. The first step forward into this new identity was altering my medication in order to provide a mood stabilizer to accompany my antidepressants. Unfortunately, this was not a smooth transition and it greatly impacted my life as a student-athlete. I couldn’t find a medication and dose that my body tolerated as well as provided the expected stabilization to my mood swings. This continued for several months into the season, which unfortunately left me feeling disillusioned that the season would amount to anything. At times some medications affected my moods in a negative way, while some irritated my stomach. I can distinctly remember one race that year in which I felt like I was going to be uncharacteristically sick on the starting line. So much so that for the rest of the race and the day following after all I could manage to eat was a box of plain cereal. Other times I would go throughout my day attending classes and going to practice with such a low energy and mood that I could barely allow myself to finish the task at hand, whether it be taking all the notes during the lecture or finishing off the interval workout without throwing in the towel.

These scenarios were not singular occurrences throughout the year, which left me wondering how long the hopelessness was going to last or if I was ever going to feel mentally stable. It was at this time where my therapist and I discovered that my perception of life and death had been altered by this helplessness that I was experiencing daily. Once a firm believer that I would never be able to take my own life due to mental health related reasons, I became enamored with the feeling of being trapped by this inability to commit suicide. All I wanted to do was to feel better and not have to deal with the complications of another medication or have them work but not feel any relief from the cyclical rollercoaster that make up my mental state at the time. Fortunately, like the common phase “The night is darkest before the dawn” my doctor eventually found a medication combination that has seemingly worked. My mental health has become more stable over the past year or so and has made living with bipolar disorder manageable. I continue to train and study at Trent University where my support group of medical professionals, teammates, coaches, professors and friends continue to aid in my journey

If you have any questions regarding your own or another’s mental health you should contact a medical professional. Universities across the OUA have resources like doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, mental health nurses at your disposal. Off-campus resources like hotlines and wellness tracking apps are encouraged by health care professionals. Regardless if you are a student-athlete or not mental health is the most important key to your success in life. It is important to remember that if you do feel it is an emergency that you talk to someone about your mental health or if you are contemplating attempting suicide call 911.