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Battling mental illness as a student-athlete

Maddy Neuner, a cross country and track and field runner at Northeastern University, shares her story about battling mental illness during her athletic career.

“Running is a huge part of my life. It’s taught me so much, taken me to so many amazing places, and given me several reasons to love life.

Unfortunately, it’s also given me reasons to hate life. I want to run professionally, but a year ago I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do that unless I was as skinny as possible. I began replacing breakfast with coffee, doing extra training when I could fit it in, and thinking about nothing but calories and my body.

I knew it was a problem immediately, and quickly alerted my coach so I could get connected to the right resources. But even after the doctor told me I was at high risk of developing RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), it took months to repair the physical and mental damage that was being done. I hated running, my body, and myself.

Reaching out to people turned out to be the best decision I could’ve made. I had weekly discussions with a psychologist and a nutritionist, and I had my coach and teammates by my side throughout it all.

Before this, I’d never discussed mental health at all. I’d bottled up my emotions and feelings and the last thing I wanted was to let them out. But last year I learned that if I didn’t discuss my struggle with food, it would continue to get worse. So I opened up.

And not just a little. I opened up about everything - food, my body, my self esteem, my struggles with depression and anxiety, and everything in between.

I am at the best mental health point in my life and I owe it all to this. I love food and running, I appreciate my body and listen to its needs, and I aim daily to live my life authentically.

Now I’m a full-fledged mental health advocate, sharing my story and supporting the movement to destigmatize mental health in every way I can. I want everyone to know that mental health struggles are nothing to be ashamed of, and everyone’s experiences are valid. If anyone knows that, it’s me.”

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