Mental anxiety 'definitely a stigma' among Montana athletes

Challenge is life, death matter for teens, parents
Sports Psych Logo.png
Debi Meling Sam's Run.png
Sam's Run Start.png
Sam's Run 2021.png
Posted at 1:30 PM, Sep 01, 2021

BILLINGS - More and more we see the world's most successful and accomplished athletes openly revealing stresses of mental health. Simone Biles at the recent Olympics, prominent tennis star Naomi Osaka, athletes in the NBA, WNBA, NFL and so on.

But mental stress is also very real right here at the grass roots level in our Montana schools.

"Some are more hesitant to seek help," Billings sport psychologist Danny Desin told "There's something there, there's definitely a stigma."

Desin grew up not far from Rocky Mountain College, actively involved in sports. Now, he has a master's degree in sport psychology and is tracking a doctorate degree.

"We've used mental and mental toughness in describing athletes for a long time without much explanation on how they develop the mental toughness," Desin continued. "It doesn't happen because they're zapped with the right genetics all the time. There are people working with them in the background, and it is definitely the background."

In short, we all struggle at times. We just don't necessarily show it to the world. Or even to our closest friends, or parents. Might be the nervous depression of a new school year, or the anxiety of a fresh sports season among middle and high school kids.

On a recent Saturday morning in Laurel, several hundred turned out in support of Sam's Run. Sam Meling was an 8th-grader who loved running cross country for Laurel Middle School before taking his own life six years ago this November.

Meling's cross country teammates, at the time, asked to honor him with a memorial run. His family humbly collaborated to turn that idea into an awareness run.

"The average onset is 14 years old for a mental health condition," explained Sam's mother Debi Meling. "Those are our kids, those kids in middle school and high school."

Sam's Run is part of an outreach program that compels kids, friends and parents to notice different triggers for slumping mental health.

"That's what we saw with Sam," Meling recalled. "He had a couple of concussions, just back-to-back, and then his personality changed and that was right before he died."

Natural anxiety and depression, even without concussions, are hard to spot in young people. And the more physical the sport, like football, the easier it can be to overlook symptoms. That's a message not lost on coaches.

"Mental health is kind of that silent illness that people do a really good job making sure that they're okay, when really, they're not okay," Laurel head football coach Mike Ludwig said.

Debi Meling was astounded at Montana's recent high rate of suicide attempts among middle school kids.

"I gave a stat (after this year's Sam's run) that said almost 15 percent of kids in seventh and eighth grade attempted suicide in 2019 in Montana. Those are staggering numbers to me," she said.

"There's ups and downs," Ludwig said of stresses facing young athletes. "We've got injuries and kids aren't playing as much as they want to, and we lose football games. It's all about trying to find a way to motivate and lift people up when they're not feeling very good."

Desin points out another angst facing Montana's young athletes, regardless of age.

"The anxiety of performance and having people in the stands, the triggers are different for every single athlete," he said. "It exists. It's just whether we can translate that into working with 10-year-old kids all the way up to the college athletes."

"Things like starting back to school and some of those other triggers can really exacerbate some of those illnesses," Meling said.

It's no secret today that social media -- sports-related or not -- intensifies expectations and anxiety for kids trying to perform well, or fit in at school.

"And then they watch the responses and expectations of people who are not involved in what they do, and that's difficult for them," Desin explained. "Staying away (from social), to whatever degree you can, would be my advice."

One of Desin's strongest tips is also one of his simplest; sort out frustrations in a 25-cent journal.

"Thoughts on paper, it's a good way to process things," he said. "Thoughts floating around in our head, we generally pick up on the negative stuff and we dwell on it."

- Danny Desin, Sport Psychologist
- StepIn/Sam Meling Memorial Foundation
- National Crisis Text Line: Text HELP to 741741 or visit online
- National Suicide Hot Line: 1-800-273-8255