Holiday Cheer? It’s not always the most wonderful time of the year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… or at least that is the message. It seems to come at us from every direction around the winter holiday season. Television and radio ads, the music we listen to, the movies available, personal social media posts and more reflect that all in the world is perfect, everyone is celebrating, families get along perfectly and even if life is messy in other parts of the year, the spirit of the winter season holidays brings joy that overcomes any challenges we might be facing.

It’s ok and completely normal to feel burdened by the holidays and struggle to find joy.

Holiday Season Struggles

While the winter holidays do bring great joy for many, the experience of that joy may not be universal and emotions around the holidays can be complex. After all, there is a great deal of interruption to our everyday lives – even if the holidays are our favorite time of year, special meals are made, gifts are bought and wrapped, houses are cleaned, people often share housing accommodations with family members they are not used to living with, some have memories of loved ones lost recently or during previous holiday seasons, and particularly in a difficult economy the holidays also come with exaggerated financial burdens. Even amidst a celebration, there are likely to be some difficult emotions to process and moments that, although all is supposed to be right in the world, feel overwhelming. For some, especially those already experiencing mental health concerns, managing these emotions may be more difficult than for others.

Unfortunately, Christmas is consistently a time when there is a rise in suicide rates and mental health challenges can feel particularly burdensome1. While we celebrate this year, we may want to watch for warning signs that those around us may be experiencing mental health challenges and try to provide them with the most supportive environment possible. One of the ways we can do this is by increasing our awareness of the types of situations that may cause heightened emotional burden so that we can talk about them openly and help others understand that their emotions are okay and perfectly normal.

Sports Participation and Holiday Pressures

Snowman playing ice hockey

Young athletes are not free from the pressures that the holiday season may bring. Here are several examples of how participation in sports combined with holidays may cause them to struggle:

We could provide many more examples, but the most important thing to remember is that the situations each athlete finds stressful and burdensome are very individual. We shouldn’t judge whether someone should be experiencing difficult emotions, but instead provide them with a space to express their emotions and support them through their challenges.  

How can you help?

There are many steps you can take to help an individual struggling around the holidays. Never underestimate the importance of your support – it may save your loved one’s life if they have had thoughts of suicide.

First and foremost, if you have immediate concerns about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:


or visit their website where they also offer an online chat with a counselor

Suicide Prevention Lifeline Website

There are a variety of other ways you can help individuals experiencing difficult emotions during the holidays, whether or not they are athletes.

What you CAN DO matters!

The most important thing to remember is that what is the most wonderful time of the year for some is extremely difficult for others. We all need to be sensitive to the feelings and needs of those around us and avoid judging the emotions of others. We may not ever be able to fully understand someone else’s emotions, even if that person is a close family member, because we cannot step into their shoes and feel what they feel. However, we CAN acknowledge when they are experiencing difficult emotions, we CAN start the conversation about their feelings and mental health, we CAN listen and avoid judgement, we CAN reaffirm that experiencing a spectrum of emotions is normal, and we CAN let them know that we are always there to support them.

This holiday season, let’s focus on everything we CAN do to make it the best experience possible while realizing we live in an imperfect world with imperfect lives!

The USC-MHS would like to wish you and all of your loved ones a special holiday season in which you celebrate all the happy moments!

  1. Levi-Belz, Y., Gvion, Y., & Apter, A. (2019). The psychology of suicide: From research understandings to intervention and treatment. Frontiers in psychiatry10, 214.
  2. University of Illinois Extension (n.d.). Getting Through Tough Financial Times.

Is it okay to talk to athletes about mental health in sports?

Many coaches have wondered whether it is okay to talk about mental health with their athletes. Is this a topic that should be out in the open, or avoided completely? Will conversations about mental health put athletes at greater risk for having mental health issues?

At the USC-MHS, we encourage coaches to talk about mental health with their athletes. It’s a positive part of athlete development to teach them how to check in on themselves.

Mental Wellness Check-Ins Should Happen Just As Often as Physical Wellness Check-Ins

We often ask athletes how they are feeling physically. “How is that shoulder doing today?”, “Are you feeling rested?”, “Do your muscles feel good – are you ready to play?” We encourage them regularly to check in with how their body feels – and when they aren’t 100%, we ask them to take steps to get back to their full capacity. 

Let’s also start encouraging athletes to check in with how their mind feels. Creating a safe space for acknowledging mental health and practicing checking in regularly will improve their ability to recognize any mental health concerns early; hopefully early enough that small steps toward healing are enough to get them back on track – before the problem endangers their wellbeing or safety.

Avoiding the Topic of Mental Health Adds to the Stigma

When we shy away from talking about mental health, we also may give athletes the impression that their feelings are abnormal. There tends to be a stereotype in sports that athletes are tough; nothing ever bothers them. As a result, when athletes feel emotions like anxiety about a big game, stress about the number of hours of training, sad about losing a game, or any number of others, they may feel like something is seriously wrong with them. In addition to those initial feelings, they may be left wondering why they can’t be tough like the other athletes and not let these things bother them – only exacerbating the problem.

Athletes need to know that experiencing different emotions is perfectly normal. We should also let them know that mental health, like physical health, falls along a continuum. Some days are better than others. There are great days, terrible days, and anything in between – all of which are completely normal. However, based on recommendations from, it is time to get professional help if:

  • Sadness, feelings of depression or anxiety, or any other signs or symptoms of mental health issues persist for more than two weeks
  • If the mental health concern is interfering with the athlete’s ability to function at sporting events, in school, with family, or in their social life
  • If there is contemplation of self-harm or suicide

Start the Conversation!

So, should coaches talk about mental health to their athletes – absolutely! It educates athletes, helps them develop skills they need to self-evaluate, and even if they are experiencing mental health issues, talking about mental health can aid the healing process.

If you are worried about feeling awkward talking about mental health with your athletes, Banyan Mental Health recommends practicing what you will say in front of a mirror first so you can become more comfortable with the topic.

Keep checking back to the USC-MHS Learning Center and Resources pages for more information about how to lead mental health conversations with your athletes.

Mental Health Support in Sports: For More Than Just Athletes

If I say to you, “Let’s talk about mental health and sport,” who is the first group of people that comes to mind?

My guess is your first answer was athletes; but did you also think about coaches, parents, officials, administrators and anyone else who may be involved?

At the USC-MHS, our mission is to develop sport environments that allow for optimum mental wellness. Sport environments support the participation of a lot of people in a wide variety of capacities. We recognize that even though many of these people may not have an active role on the field or court in the same way athletes do, they are not free from exposure to additional pressures that could lead to mental health concerns. The USC-MHS seeks to provide mental health resources and support for ALL SPORT PARTICIPANTS, not only athletes.

There are many scenarios in sport that could increase the likelihood that a participant may need mental health support. We’ll consider a few examples.  


A coach’s job is not at an easy one. They are responsible for overseeing the development of multiple athletes at any given time. Most coaches became involved because they love working with athletes, they care about them as people, and enjoy being a mentor to them. But, in taking on the tasks of leading a team, there are situations that could have damaging impacts to their own mental wellbeing:

◘ Having to decide which players do an do not get playing time
◘ Seeing athletes they care about struggle due to performance, injuries, etc.
◘ Managing the expectations for wins with those for creating a fun playing environment
◘ Feeling pressure from parents with a broad range of expectations
◘ Balancing coaching responsibilities with other professional and personal responsibilities


Parents have a huge role in sports. They are often transporting athletes to practices and competitions, managing home schedules to allow for sports participation, providing the funding to make participation possible, and supporting every part of their child’s journey through sports. Consider these potential risk factors for mental health issues for parents:

◘ Having very busy schedules with little to no personal time for self-care
◘ Seeing their child struggle through not getting the desired playing time, performance disappointments, injuries, etc.
◘ Supporting their child’s sports goals while also finding balance with what is best for their overall development as a person
◘ Feeling pressured to continually increase involvement levels
◘ Keeping up with the financial investment required for sport participation

Sports Official

Sports competitions cannot go on without sports officials. Most officials are involved because they love the sport and want to make sure athletes have an opportunity to play in a safe and fair environment. But this is another role where there are many challenges that could lead to mental health issues:

◘ Listening to complaints about their decisions and the quality of their officiating
◘ Competing for limited advancement opportunities
◘ Feeling unsupported in the importance of their role
◘ Balancing time spent officiating with time for professional and family activities

Sports Administrator

Sports organizers and administrators also have a great deal of responsibility in sports. Sometimes their work is done behind the scenes. Yet, without them, there would not be teams, clubs, or leagues. Since administrators are in leadership positions and often have a good amount of experience, it may be easy to overlook that they also face pressures that could impact their mental health:

◘ Feeling disconnected from other sport participants
◘ Committing a significant amount of time to the sport
◘ Facing uncertainties about the financial viability of the club or league
◘ Becoming emotionally drained while providing dispute and conflict resolutions

Mental Health Support for ALL Participants

We have provided 4 categories of participants in sport beyond athletes. Yet, there are many more we have not discussed such as volunteers, additional family members of athletes, assigners of sports officials, etc. At the USC-MHS, we believe that developing sport environments that allow for optimum mental wellness means that we support the mental health of ALL INVOLVED!

Mental Health Challenges are Unique

After reading these examples of risk factors for mental health issues, we would like to remind you that they are just that: examples. Please remember that mental health challenges are unique and not experienced in the same way or for the same reasons by everyone. We should never judge whether someone has a valid reason for experiencing mental health challenges. Instead, our role is to provide support and, as needed, pathways to professional help when we notice signs and symptoms of mental health issues.

Additional Support

For additional mental health resources and support for anyone who participates in sport in any capacity, please visit our Resources page.

Speaking of Mental Health: Put in the Person-First, Take out the Stigma

Mental health concerns can be a challenging topic to talk about. There is so much stigma around mental health that bringing up the topic can make a room go silent, can lead to whispers between people well after the conversation took place, and unfortunately, it is all too often assumed that experiencing mental health challenges is equivalent to being “crazy.”

There are a lot of coaches, parents, athletes, and others in the sports world who sincerely want to help support those who may be experiencing mental health issues. But because of the stigma around mental health concerns and due to limited knowledge about how to help, many times, we are afraid to step up out of fear that we might be doing or saying something wrong.


Here are some simple strategies that can be utilized that might help the conversation go more smoothly when you reach out to help someone.

1 Use Person-First Language: This is first on the list because it is such an easy way to make a difference in showing respect and compassion for another person. It is a matter of changing your word choices, and yet can communicate a much more supportive message. Too often we label people as their mental health issue. Calling someone “depressed”, “psychotic”, “schizophrenic”, “anxious” or any other label turns that person into the challenge they are experiencing. But mental health issues are experiences, they do not define the person. It is far better to use a personal pronoun first and then follow with what that person is experiencing. Check out the “Say This, Not That” table below with some suggestions.



You may be experiencing depression.
Are you feeling anxious?
Are you experiencing psychosis?


You are depressed.
Are you anxious?
Are you psychotic?

One note about person-first language – even though changing the words you use might seem “simple,” it can actually take a great deal of effort to change our speech patterns. But the more you try, the better you will get at it. If you make a mistake and use a label, you can correct yourself or try again in future conversations to use wording that shows how much you care.

*For more examples of person-first language, visit

2 Understand that Mental Health Issues are an Experience: Using person-first language communicates that the person is not defined by the mental health issue they are experiencing. Now, you need to remind yourself of that knowledge, as well. Experiencing a mental health issue does not ever mean a person is crazy and it is important to remember that recovery from any mental health issue is possible. When we recognize within ourselves that the person is separate from the illness or disorder, we are more likely to show that through both our words and actions. After all, we should conceptualize mental illness in similar ways to how we conceptualize physical ailments. We would never tell someone who has a broken arm, “You are broken,” as though the injury is now their permanent defining trait. If we know that recovery from mental health issues is possible, we are more likely to bring hope to others experiencing them.

3 Break the Silence: A third tip regarding those conversations about mental health concerns is to START THEM! We know it can be awkward at first since there is stigma around mental health. However, the more we talk about it, the more those conversations become part of the norm. If our youth athletes hear parents talking about it, it will not make them depressed too, it will allow them to see that conversations about depression are ok to have as an example. We will save lives if we make it okay to talk about mental health concerns before they become so severe that they lead to suicidal thought or harmful behaviors. After all, if we saw someone with a broken arm who needed a doctor, we most likely wouln’t have any problem asking them some questions about their injury to make sure we got them connected with the professional medical help they needed. Let’s make it the same for mental health issues – START the CONVERSATION! You can do this – if you help just one person, you’ve made a huge difference!

USC-MHS: In Pursuit of a Mission

The US Center for Mental Health & Sport (USC-MHS) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in pursuit of a mission to provide a sports environment for all participants that allows their mental wellness to thrive. We believe in participation in sport and the numerous benefits gained from participation. But we also believe that one area where sport organizations can do better for everyone involved is in supporting mental health. Our official mission statement reflects our aim to help sport organizations do just that.

Our mission:

The US Center for Mental Health & Sport develops sport environments that allow for optimum mental wellness by providing mental health training and resources, opening pathways to access additional mental health support services, and committing to the advancement of mental health and sport research.

The Growing Mental Health Crisis:

Our organization was initiated in recognition of a mental health crisis impacting our entire nation and touching the lives of individuals in all age groups. As annual data collected by Mental Health America indicates, youth and adult mental health has worsened and this decline has accelerated due to COVID-19; rates of suicide, suicidal ideation, and thoughts of self-harm are increasing; there is greater unmet need for treatment and significant percentages of both youth and adults who are uninsured or do not have access to mental health care services.

Why Address Mental Health in Sports?

In acknowledging the growing mental health crisis, our organization sees a twofold role for sport organizations in communities.

  1. With the rates of individuals facing challenging mental health experiences on the rise, our communities cannot rely on clinical healthcare settings alone to counteract this crisis, nor is it in the best interest of our community members to allow mental health issues to go unsupported until they have worsened to the point of needing clinical care. Our communities need local organizations to become involved and play an active role in supporting mental health. Sports organizations already play an integral role in our communities, and the USC-MHS aims to provide information, training, resources, and pathways for these sports organizations to also help with the prevention and early intervention of mental health issues.
  2. We also recognize that sports participation, in any capacity, is not free of its own unique risk factors for experiencing mental health challenges. The USC-MHS provides training that educates about these risk factors and provides action plans to mitigate their negative effects while also enhancing the mental health support and protective factors that are present in sport.

Mission Pursuit Strategies

In order to fulfill our mission, our current endeavors involve four primary initiatives.

  1. Provide mental health awareness training to coaches, athletes, parents, administrators, officials and any others involved in sport.
  2. Provide counseling and therapy services to sport families and participants and ensure there are clear pathways to additional mental health support.
  3. Develop content and resources related to mental health that can be accessed by the sport community.
  4. Promote continued research on mental health and sport through an established group of research fellows.

Additional articles providing more specific information on each of these strategies are coming soon.

Can I Get Involved?

The USC-MHS website contains an updated list of opportunities that individuals who are interested should refer to if they want to become involved ( We are also always grateful for donations to support our cause, help save lives by reducing suicide rates, and allow all sport participants to reach their optimum mental wellness.  (