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Heather Ford Risk: This Could Have Been Me

I struggle finding words when I hear about another tragic passing of a college athlete after a battle with mental health. For one, I knew one of the people in this graphic. For another, under other circumstances, this could have been me.

photo collage of student athletes who have committed suicide

Many people (though maybe not those whom I have met more recently) know that I was a highly competitive soccer player growing up, with a lifelong dream of playing at the college level. I traveled across the country, attending college showcases nearly every weekend throughout my teens, and was in the process of being recruited by several Division I programs. Many people also know that I developed anorexia when I was 16, a disease borne out of a lifetime spent struggling with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and which usurped my physical health and derailed my athletic career.

When I went to intensive outpatient treatment in the fall of 2021 --after trying and failing to fight my illness on my own for more than 10 years --we were asked to examine our eating disorders and to try to determine what the eating disorder was protecting us from. After all, eating disorders --like many mental illnesses --are coping mechanisms for all sorts of adverse events, emotions, and experiences, developed in the absence of healthy ones. I came to realize that my eating disorder had actually protected me from a lot of things in my young life: a sense of lack of control over my emotional wellbeing; feelings of inadequacy in all aspects of my life; struggles with making and maintaining friendships; criticism and doubt, both external and self-motivated. But in a much more real sense, my eating disorder protected me from the struggles faced by young athletes when they advance to the next level and are beyond the shelter of their home.

Because if I had started experiencing my mental health symptoms in college, what might have happened? How would I have handled the pressures of school and sports and making friends --all things I found quite difficult in high school and middle school --without people who loved me to guide me and keep an eye on my mental health? I see the faces in this picture, and I read their stories, and I see myself if my mental illness hadn't started when I was a child, if I hadn't been forcibly removed from competition. And when I think about this now, it makes me thankful that I simply did not have that opportunity.

Heather Ford Risk

This is not to say that I do not regret that I couldn't compete in college. Because I do. I think about it every day. I think about it every day because sports are my life, and competition runs in my blood. Throughout the years, I have caught myself treating myself like a competitive athlete even when I am just working out for fun, urging myself to try harder, run faster, lift more, and criticizing myself if I do not live up to the expectations I set for myself when I was still a kid. Like I still have to prove something to myself and to others, even though I have not participated in a truly competitive sport in more than 10 years. You see, you don't stop being an athlete when you stop competing. You struggle with your identity, with constructing a new image of who you are without that one thing that used to make your world turn. This is another thing I learned in treatment: hinging your identity on a few things that you are good at is not a tenable prescription for long-term growth. I have tried over the last seven months to come to terms with this and to focus on who I am outside of the things I excel at. I am not there yet, but I am making progress.

I don't share this for sympathy or for attention. I share this because I know people appreciate hearing their scary experiences read back to them in language they didn't know they could use. I wish I understood all of this when I was younger, but of course, we learn as we grow. And the young people in this image? They have been robbed of the opportunity to grow in the way I have, and to learn there is life outside of perfection.

Because we live in a culture that urges people to define themselves by the things they are good at. Culturally, America is premised on an idea that anyone can be anything they want, if only they work hard enough. We praise excellence and demean failure because of this. We have collectively created a culture so toxically focused on perfection and excellence that young people (and adults) often see no way out. And for those who are excelling, sometimes this doesn't even matter--sometimes, the voice in your head telling you that you are failing (despite all indications to the contrary) is so loud, and so unrelenting, that death seems preferential to living with yourself for another moment.

I firmly believe that the epidemic of young people ending their lives is societally motivated and requires a societal solution. It is not enough to share stories, or to post the suicide hotline, or to check in on your friends. This is an issue of how we speak to our children, our peers, and ourselves, and how society condones negative talk as a motivator. This is not limited to sports, although sports are a sphere in which this behavior is markedly more obvious and dangerous given the social status still granted to athletic feats. In fact, high school and college students end their lives every day; why do the sports suicides receive so much more media attention? Is it because it is unfathomable that someone with such a skill--such a talent--would decide that life is no longer worth living? This is further evidence, to me, of our nation's obsession with excellence.

My generation is uniquely placed to effectuate such a change, but we can only do it if we collectively identify the issue as a societal weakness and not an individual weakness. We need to remember that the ways we speak to and socialize our children matter, and we need to call out critical behavior for what it is (because really, why is anyone screaming at an umpire at a T-ball game?). We need to have open and honest conversations with our children and one another about our experiences and about mental health. We need to teach them that failure and imperfection is part of life, and it's more than okay; it's human. We need to incorporate a focus on mental healthcare in schooling, public and private. Because the more we talk about it, the more we will realize we are not alone, and that there are others who have lived our experiences but were similarly afraid to speak of them.

Heather Ford Risk and team walking onto the field


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