Sam wasn’t the kind of girl who looked like someone plagued by depression. For her entire life she was a good student known for her athleticism on the field. She was a three-season athlete with a supportive and involved family. Yet, in her sophomore year in high school, she began harming herself and thinking about suicide. At a time in life when she could have been looking forward to a bright future, she was struggling on the inside and trying to maintain the outward appearance that all was as it should be.
In her sophomore year, she was involved in sports competitively. The level of competition was reflected in the frequency of roughness that was happening in the games. In the span of a year and a half, Sam sustained three concussions while playing ice hockey. Under medical advice, she was permanently sidelined from the field, making the recovery process from the concussions even more difficult. Not only was she facing the physical recovery which included dealing with headaches and problems focusing her thoughts, but she also needed to redefine herself. Who was she if she couldn’t play sports? How could she find that same sense of belonging without her teammates? What could she throw her energies into now that she’d lost such a core part of who she was? These questions nagged at Sam constantly, and had her turning to self-harm as a way to assert control. By cutting, she felt a high feeling, a release from the uncertainty and depression. But knowing that this behavior wasn’t productive, she confided in a friend who in turn, insisted she tell her parents. “On some level I knew I needed help and I knew my friend would tell. Thankfully she did so I didn’t have to go through that time alone any longer,” Sam recalls.
“On some level I knew I needed help…”
For Sam’s mom, the news of her daughter’s cutting came out of nowhere. She knew that there was the physical recovery from the concussion, what she didn’t realize was that research studies have shown that in some athletes; there has been an increase of depression in players with a history of three or more concussions. And her daughter’s thought patterns and behaviors clearly demonstrated that her depression was getting to a breaking point.
After several inpatient experiences, Sam wasn’t getting better. She checked herself out of one program after three days. “Looking back, avoidance was just an easier way to deal with how I was feeling and what I was thinking,” she shared. But as the reality of a new school year and all the expectations that came with it settled in, Sam committed to her recovery and came to Franciscan Children’s inpatient mental health program for what would end up being a six week stay. “During that time, the routine was helpful. The staff worked with me and gave me the tools I needed to get better and inspired me to want to feel better. They took the time to know me and crafted their suggestions for me around my strengths. For example, they knew I had lots of energy so one staff member made accommodations for me to throw a ball in the hallway so I could use that as a physical outlet. They looked at the situation from my perspective and never judged me when I fell back into old negative behaviors. Though, with time, those behaviors became something I relied on less, and eventually, not at all.”
“The staff worked with me and gave me the tools I needed to get better and they inspired me to want to feel better.”
During her stay at Franciscan Children’s she learned to be mindful and analyze her feelings. Finding her new identity was layered. Her introspective time helped her acknowledge and embrace her sexual identity too. “Once I could filter out the mood and depression issues, I could face what I’d been running from in my conscious mind for so long. And when I did, my family was so supportive. They were just waiting for me to acknowledge what they already knew about me.”
The transition back home after a six week stay wasn’t easy. Going home meant a change to the routine and a reintegration to life at home with two sisters and parents who were all watching closely. Instead of going back to school full time immediately, Franciscan’s case managers worked in coordination with Sam’s family and school to place her in a partial program where she’d continue to receive the supports she needed to be successful. Improvement wasn’t a linear process, and says Sam, “it’s important to realize that some days will be better than others. Recognizing when I was just having a bad day and when I was truly spiraling downward was important to long-term improvement.”
Today Sam is a Junior at a small private college where she’s studying Psychology. She plans to get her Master’s Degree in Social Work so she can help others the way they helped her. While she’s not playing competitive sports anymore, she is the director of softball operations at her school. In her spare time, she volunteers with an organization that matches young adults with children who need role models.
“[Mental health challenges are] something we must address because life is worth living.”
“Everything happens for a reason. That time in my life happened to teach me some important life lessons. I’ve learned not to judge other people because you’ll never truly know what they’re going through. It also made me realize that mental health challenges know no gender or socioeconomic status. It’s something that affects so many of us, but ultimately is something we must address because life is worth living.”
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 Guskiewicz KM, Marshall SW, Bailes J, et al. Recurrent concussion and risk of depression in retired professional football players. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Jun 2007;39(6):903-9. [Medline].Explore All Stories