The importance of mental health for student-athletes

UK basketball player Jacob Toppin recently opened up about his struggles with mental health
UK basketball player Jacob Toppin recently opened up about his struggles with mental health
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 5:42 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - We sometimes see athletes as super-human, but when the game is over, and the bright lights go out, they’re often left with the mental struggles of performing at a high level.

“I was messed up mentally. I wasn’t thinking right even when I was on the court, I wasn’t fully on the court,” said UK senior Jacob Toppin. “So it was really hard for me.”

Following a game in early January, Kentucky senior Jacob Toppin opened up about his mental health struggles.

“Honestly, I probably reached rock bottom,” said Toppin. “There was no bottom before this game. So I just tried to focus on climbing back out of the hole that I was in, and I took a step forward today.”

“When you find yourself in that place, let people know where you are mentally like I think he did,” said former Kentucky basketball player Andre Riddick. “Having people close to him being able to reach out and him reaching out to people he trusts.”

Andre Riddick is very familiar with the mental struggles of playing basketball at a school like Kentucky. The former Wildcat says he had his own struggles during his playing career.

“Coach (Rick) Pitino set me up to go see a sports psychologist, and I met with him and worked through some things,” said Riddick. “He really helped me out. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a counselor today, because of my experiences during that time.”

These days Riddick is a licensed professional counselor in Lexington, helping those who, like Toppin, are dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

“It’s never that because I’m an athlete, I’m not human, and I don’t have things going on that I need help with or that I need to talk to somebody about, said Riddick. “It’s the fact that we need to come away from looking at athletes as superheroes that don’t have problems but as superheroes that do have problems. "

A recent study by the NCAA found that 30% of student-athletes say they feel extremely overwhelmed., with 25% reporting mental exhaustion. Another study reported 31% of male and 48% of female NCAA student-athletes reported having depression or anxiety symptoms.

“We’ve done a lot of work, and it’s not been on the court,” said Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari. “You had guys feeling the weight of the world, and that’s why I said it’s not life and death.”

While performance anxiety is not unique to athletes, it can be elevated due to their high-profile and outside pressures through things like social media.

“I know that I don’t pay attention to it. I don’t know that they don’t,” said Calipari. “Sometimes I think they’re reading that stuff. You just can’t. It’s a different time and age. You know, it’s funny I was sitting with Jeff Sheppard. I said Jeff, what if you had social media back then?”

“I do think that as athletes are looking at their dreams and looking at their future, a lot of times they miss the moment, and that’s sad,” said former Kentucky basketball player Jeff Sheppard. “They don’t need to miss the moment.”

Jeff Sheppard was a member of two national championship teams at Kentucky in 1996 and 1998 and remembers what it was like to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“The best thing about Kentucky basketball is the expectations,” said Sheppard. “The worst thing about Kentucky basketball is the expectations.”

That’s the advice he gives his son Reed, one of the top high school prospects in the country, who will suit up for the Wildcats next season.

“We tell him, you know who’s responsible for my mental health? My teammate and I’m responsible for his, “said Sheppard. “When that relationship exists, then we’ve got two people working. Now we have three people working. Now we have twelve people working. Now we have a whole community working, and now we can win.”

It’s that team mentality that has helped Jacob Toppin get back to the right frame of mind.

“I had a lot of support from my teammates and my coaching staff, and it just feels good to be back to my old self,” said Toppin. “I feel good mentally and physically. So we just move forward and try to get better as a team from here.”