Thanks to Chris Mosier for contributing this story to our Project: Speak series on athletes’ experiences with mental health in their coming out stories.
When you think of an athlete, what qualities do you envision? How does that person look, act, and speak? What energy do they carry? How do they interact with the world? Or, perhaps more importantly, how does the world interact with them?
While it varies slightly from sport to sport, we all have a stereotype of who an athlete is, how they look, how they act, and how they sound. They are often leaders on campus, and have a certain amount of social capital in schools (particularly at colleges with revenue sports). Athletes are strong. And on the flipside of that, it is implied that athletes do not show weakness or vulnerability because opponents may take advantage.
One of the most valuable pieces of what GO! Athletes does is increase the visibility of different types of athletes. By having lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) athletes share their stories, we are breaking down the stereotypes of who an athlete is and what they look like. We have successfully expanded the way people envision athletes, and with each new story, we create more space for diverse perspectives and experiences in sports.
We know that, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, athletes are often high performers and faced with high levels of stress – both self imposed and from external sources such as coaches, teammates, and fans. Stress can be a performance enhancer in the right conditions, but paired with other circumstances, stress levels can also increase exponentially, and sometimes to a dangerous level.
For the past two months, GO! Athletes has been sharing stories about athletes’ experiences with mental health in their coming out stories. The intention of this project is to promote conversation surrounding mental health, addiction, and suicide in LGBTQ* athletes. Some people have said, “everyone goes through tough times and gets down sometimes; why is this important?” For young people, the statistics are frightening: suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. LGB youth are four times more likely and questioning youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and nearly half of young transgender people have seriously considered suicide, which about 25 percent of trans youth making a suicide attempt. That number increases greatly if a person is rejected by their family or friends, or if they are Black or Hispanic, or if they are transgender woman.
If you’ve been following along for the past Project: Speak posts, you’ll see that each story is different, but there are a few common threads: we have struggled with acceptance of ourselves and from others, and with navigating our identities as athletes and the expectations around being an athlete. In reading stories we have shared, we know this is a very real issue, but we may not feel well equipped to deal with our own feelings or help those around us.
Beyond story sharing, a goal of Project: Speak is to increase the number of tools both athletes and allies have at their disposal to handle difficult situations like these for themselves and others. Use the following tips as guidelines for dealing with an athlete in crisis:
Ten Guidelines for Immediate Care of an Athlete Dealing with a Crisis
- Hear out the person
Each person’s story is different. We all have different backgrounds, upbringings, family situations, and other influences that impact our decision-making and our circumstances. Don’t assume you know how someone feels or all of what they are facing. Use good reflective listening to make sure you understand what the person is thinking and feeling to the extent they feel comfortable sharing. This will help them, and it will help you decide what should be done.
- Decide if the person is in crisis
Based on what you have heard, decide whether this is a temporary, situational crisis, or if the person is in a true crisis. Someone may feel depressed and hopeless because of a situation, but may not have intentions of hurting themselves. Determine if the athlete has support and appropriate coping mechanisms in place. Refer out as needed (see below).
- Take the person seriously
No matter how trivial or unimportant a problem may seem to you, it is extremely important to the person in crisis and who wants help; it is critical that you take the problem seriously too, especially if a person is confiding in you. The perception that one is in crisis feels as real as an actual life-threatening crisis.
- Keep calm
The person in crisis needs someone who, upon seeing or hearing the problem, does not freak out. Even if what you are being told or see frightens or upsets you (and it might), do everything in your power to remain calm, steady, and rational. Show and express care and concern in a calm way; a person in crisis will be looking to others for support.
- Stick with the person
Your willingness to speak with an athlete in crisis without judgment will have a powerful impact. One major fear of sharing feelings of depression or anxiety is the concern that someone will share their story and the person hearing it will leave or not respond. It is important to acknowledge when an athlete shares their story or feelings, and thank them for bringing you in. Do not abandon someone who shares their feelings with you; however, do get help if necessary.
- Get help
Do not try to be a hero and handle a crisis alone; reach out for help if needed. Many of us are not trained in crisis counseling and it can be easy to get in over our heads. Expanding the network of support for an athlete can be helpful. It is important to keep a person’s trust, so be strategic about who you loop in for support. However, in any case where you believe a person may hurt themselves or hurt someone else, get help immediately.
Making a referral to an outside source can be a great help. Staying with someone as they speak with Trevor Project or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or connecting them to GO! Athletes or a local community resource can broaden the network of support.
- Avoid trying to solve the problem
Not a therapist or a counselor? Do not try to act like one! Crisis intervention is not the time for you to practice psychotherapy or to attempt to solve the causes of someone else’s crisis. Do more listening than talking.
- Encourage venting of feelings
Venting feelings can help defuse an immediate crisis. Having an outlet for feelings can help, as many LGBTQ people and many athletes bottle their emotions, or fear sharing their feelings.
- Avoid arguing
Do not argue with a person in crisis about behaviors they may threaten, including self harm, as it may increase anger and defensiveness and cause a person to shut down.
- Follow up.
If you’ve with a person in crisis, it is appropriate for you to follow up after. People in crisis, similar to LGBTQ people coming out, want acceptance, support, comfort, friendship, and understanding, as well as an acknowledgment of their feelings.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands of stories that haven’t yet been told. Although we have seen a very public declaration of coming out from high school, college, and limited professional athletes, there is no one way or one right way to come out; yet, with the increased visibility, athletes may feel pressure to come out, and have expectations for their future if they choose to be out. Each individual must make their own decision about what the coming out process and timeline will look like for them. Sometimes along this timeline folks can encounter a rollercoaster of feelings that may make the above tools necessary.
Below are a few of our favorite resources:
GO! ATHLETES: GO! Athletes is a national network of current and former LGBTQ high school and college student athletes that provides visibility, support, and advocacy. GO! Athletes provides both a network and one-on-one peer mentoring to help LGBTQ athletes.
TREVOR PROJECT: The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24 hour hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255
ANTI-VIOLENCE PROJECT: Offers free and confidential crisis-counseling, support and advocacy to victims of crime—including bias crime, rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS related violence, police misconduct or a pick-up crime.
The Parents Project: The Parents Project is a first-of-its-kind digital presence, inclusive of videos, advice, and resources, dedicated exclusively toward helping parents understand their LGBTQ kids.
Anyone wishing to get further training on helping LGBTQ athletes through crisis is encouraged to participate in the GO! Athletes Mentorship Training. For more information, visit www.goathletes.org/mentorship.
Chris Mosier is the Executive Director of GO! Athletes and founder of TransAthlete.com. He was recently profiled in ESPN The Magazine as the first transgender man to make a Men’s US National Team, and is using his platform as a member of Team USA to increase visibility for and inclusion of LGBTQ people in sports. He can be reached on social media at @thechrismosier or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Project: Speak is a story-sharing series to promote conversation surrounding mental health, addiction and suicide in LGBTQ* athletes. If you are an athlete interested in sharing your story, contact us as email@example.com
If you or someone you know are in crisis, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. If you or someone you know are an LGBTQ* youth, the Trevor Project has a 24/7 crisis outreach and suicide lifeline set up so that you can get in contact with one of their trained counselors via text message (1-202-1200), online chat, or phone call (866-488-7386).