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Mental Health Among LGBTQ Athletes: Chelsea Woods Story

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

Who are you? (really unpack it, sometimes as athletes we get caught up into only being an athlete, and that only being our identity, but who are you really?)

  • “Beyond basketball, I feel as though I am an artist. I am a creator. I am a giver more than a taker. I rarely take, ever. I’m a motivator, as much as I don’t want to be a leader it is something that just happens. When you have been through things and have so much knowledge you can share things with people and help them through.”

What does mental health mean to you?

  • “To me mental health is so important. To me it means everything. I went through depression and anxiety. My sister committed suicide because of depression. Mental health is real to me. Taking a break from everything to recharge yourself. Continuing to relearn yourself, as much as you’re growing you have to relearn yourself. Mental health starts to strike when you lose yourself and you start to doubt yourself and second guess yourself. When you start to doubt yourself that’s when anxiety starts to creep in.”

What role do you think the stigma surrounding mental health affects athletes?

  • “I think not alot of people understand the mental health exhaustion that athletes go through. The mental health that athletes have to juggle. From workouts in the morning, finding times to eat, finding times to sleep and study. Work, eat, sleep, study and then you need some kind of fun to balance that. I don’t think anyone knows the amount of mental health that takes a toll on athletes. There really isn’t much of a mental break. There is not a break really established in the athlete schedule. From needing rest of your body, stressing of classes, relationship problems, all of that can either strengthen you or drain you mentally. For athletes it’s either all or nothing.”

Has your sexuality affected your mental health in any way? If so, how? (i.e. acceptance, stigma, locker room talk, etc)

  • “I feel like it hasn’t personally affected me, maybe when I was younger. When I was younger the main thing I had to worry about was people asking me if I find them attractive just because they are female. The presumption that you have to like or date your female friends. People are scared to hang around you because they don’t want you to like them. Masculine females aren’t attracted to everyone, they have a type too. They have platonic friends. Alot of people aren’t comfortable with it because they don’t know much about it. There’s a lack of knowledge, they just know the basic definition of a lesbian and that a girl likes a girl. It’s the lack of knowledge that really affects the mental health of people that are gay and are around alot of females. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with it and you just have to accept that. People may not accept that and it comes with being gay, people may not accept it. As a lesbian, people constantly look at you weird. People ask why girls want to date a woman who dresses and acts like a man? I hate that question. It’s just a lack of knowledge. I’ve dealt with that question a lot especially as an athlete from parents, coaches, and sometimes you don’t get picked on a team because of our sexuality.”

  • “A Lot of recruiting is about image. Some coaches don’t want players that look like a boy. They don’t want to deal with that and will rather not recruit you for that. When you are gay, lesbian, recruiters see you as a liability because of your personal love life. They are concerned about your personal life like they own you. You are a risk and a liability once you step into your sexual preference.”

Has your mental health ever affected your school or athletic performance and in what way?

  • “When my sister died from depression, that sparked a lot of my anxiety. It mentally took a toll on me. Anybody who has dealt with a suicidal death there are so many unanswered questions. Even though I think basketball helped me recover from that. I kind of blocked it out and used basketball to block it out. I think a lot of people use something to block it out, block out the pain. I use basketball as my crutch to block out the pain. I ended up losing focus because I kept trying to avoid it. It mentally took a toll on me. It was unexpected. Nobody knows with suicide. It could be the happiest person and then they are gone. With anxiety as well, me trying to balance my social life along with basketball. Transitioning from highschool to college there was a lot of anxiety. Running around constantly, sometimes you forget to eat. Sometimes you forget you’re hungry because you have to study.”

Have you ever been bullied, discriminated against, or made uncomfortable by teammates or  coaches regarding your sexuality? What happened and how did it make you feel? 

  • “Nobody ever called me my name, they called me manly names. “Charles, Chester” In high school, people would call me Charles. Just because I’m manly don’t call me names. The discrimination part came from alot of questions that I was asked. They asked me would I cut off my boobs, would I transition. No, I love all my body, I don’t plan on transitioning. I’m a permanent tomboy, that’s the best way to describe me. I feel like I'm a permanent tomboy in the sense that I’d rather wear boy clothes and style it in my own way. I love my hair, I just like dressing in boy clothes. Nowadays people don’t use the word tomboy, they use stud, d***, etc… I don’t like those words especially d***, it’s a harsh word. The lack of knowledge that people have and the ignorance of people. People call me d*** just because I dress like a boy. The lack of understanding that people have sometimes it’s offensive. Don’t call people names you wouldn’t want to be called. Nobody is asking straight people are they going to enhance their body and do they like themselves. I feel like that part is discriminatory. That’s where you have to be prepared to handle those questions especially by being gay. It’s a level of maturity that comes with your sexuality choice because people will question you. Because straight is so normalized, they don’t get the same question. Being gay you have to have patience with the ignorant questions because some people don’t mean to be offensive. Sometimes at work people call me “he” Sometimes people don’t think before they speak. If you aren’t emphasizing your body, showing cleavage, you are automatically a guy.”

What are some ways you manage your mental health?

  • “I take an hour out of my day, I do not disturb my phone. Everything is off and nowhere near me. I take the hour to just breathe. I take the hour to relax and speak to myself. In my head trying to regroup. Who am I, what am I going to do today, what am I going to do tomorrow. I speak to my future. I have to figure out what triggers my anxiety. If I have anxiety throughout the day I know how to find out where it stems from. Taking the hour for meditation, reading, relaxing mind and body, taking the hour to myself. Mentally escape the world for an hour and ease my way back into,”

How can teams improve in regards to managing players' mental health and recognizing it?

  • “I feel like meditation is good for teams. I understand that a lot of people don’t want to talk to counselors about their problems. I don’t want people to know my business, I am a private person. I think there should be exercises that strengthen and practice mental health. Providing a break. Listening, recognizing, and understanding are the three things that are needed but are the hardest things for people to do. Listen to understand and not listen to respond. Recognize what they said and try to understand it. A lot of coaches listen but form their own ideas. I think all coaches need to take a class and fresh up on mental awareness. Just like how athletes have to learn the signs of alcohol and drug abuse. So many kids are going through mental health, a lot of kids turn to alcohol to try to cope or escape from their mental health. We need to recognize the signs. I think programs are often focused on the wrong thing. We go through 1-2 hour videos about drugs and alcohol, we need the same thing for mental health. Learn the signs, learn how to deal with it. How to deal with it themselves or how to help others. A lot of people are screaming and you can’t hear them. If more people were aware of that, more people could be saved. Sometimes I think coaches forget they were players. They forget how tiring being an athlete is, they are so focused on winning. You have 14+ lives you have to look over. There should be a manual for coaches.”

What support systems do you have when you are dealing with difficult situations?

  • “My support system is myself. I learned I can’t depend on people. Whenever I had an anxiety attack I used to call my partner. But what if they are not available, now I’m freaking out because they aren’t answering and my anxiety is through the roof. I have to be able to handle it myself. I googled it, how to control my anxiety, how I can help me release all the depression and anxiety, all those energies. So I can realize and recognize my happiness. I was going through depression and nobody knew. Strong people need a break too, they are always there for other people but often it isn’t reciprocated. I am my own support system because I will never leave me, I will always answer my call. The only way I can disappoint myself is through accepting something else someone has done to me. I write, I never used to write a lot. I used to listen to music and when I’m ready to come back I’ll come back. That was my recovery and therapy. Writing and reading out loud, it helps you understand your feelings. Once you understand how you feel you can find solutions and dig deep to see why you feel that way. It helps you understand yourself. And if you are spiritual, pray. That’s one thing that got me through. The amount of times I got on my knees and prayed. Not just in trouble, but any time. The more you understand yourself, the more you can depend on yourself, and you don’t let the outside world get to you too much. A Lot of people think if you are dependent on yourself you don’t need anyone but that’s not true. Your partner adds to you not complete you. Another person can add to you, the better you are, the better you both are.”

How have the lessons and experiences you’ve learned in college sports prepare you for your professional life? 

  • “Honestly, I feel like everything I’ve been through in college. Nothing in life can break me down. If you can get through college as an athlete, nothing in this world can stop you. Just working, a 9-5, you might not like it. Just getting paid and then finding time for yourself. College has helped me have thick skin and always being on the go. As an athlete you are used to doing multiple things. In the outside world, I feel like I have to be moving. You have to see your goals, see what you have now and how that can help you succeed. Like being on the court, having a game plan and knowing your scouting report. It’s like that in the outside world, knowing your scouting report of what’s around. It’s about winning the game. Basketball has taught me to be okay with a loss. Can’t dwell  on a lost game, can’t dwell on a failed plan. Basketball can literally translate into the regular world. That transition from basketball to the real world, is also what triggered anxiety. In college, you always had a roommate, a trainer, always someone to call or always someone that could check up in on you. The transition of having help to having nobody and being by yourself. I didn’t know how to be by myself, I didn’t know what to do. Now I have to find friends in the real world. That’s the downside of being an athlete, you get comfortable being around people all the time that are helping you and you trust them with everything. You trust you can leave money in the locker room, you trust your trainer with giving you medicine when you are sick. When you get in the outside world, you don’t have those things. When you get out of college your body feels old and your body is going to ache. And you don’t know what’s wrong. I think those are the only downsides of the transition. Being an athlete helped prepare me for everything that could come from the outside world. I feel like there isn’t anything I can’t achieve. Just like winning the game from a half court shot. It prepares you for the impossible. Basketball prepares you for any and everything. You learn life lessons. Who you want to be like, what friends you want to have, which ones you don’t. Transitioning to real life, it’s like starting over but you are prepared.”

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