IMHO: Former Dartmouth runner’s battle with depression sheds light on athletes’ struggles

  • Long distance runner Alexi Pappas, left, speaks with local Chicago Public School students on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at the Champion Chicago store. (AP Photo/Peter Wynn Thompson) AP — Peter Wynn Thompson

  • Alexi Pappas and Nick Kroll in the movie “Olympic Dreams.”(IFC Films)

  • Alexi Pappas in 2016 at Dartmouth College. Courtesy

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 12/22/2020 9:13:18 PM
Modified: 12/23/2020 8:34:16 PM

Alexi Pappas heard the same things many people with a mental illness do: Snap out of it, just be yourself, it’ll pass. She says it nearly took her life.

Earlier this month, Pappas made a frank acknowledgment in a New York Times video op-ed: She suffers from severe clinical depression. The former Dartmouth College cross country and track standout felt the symptoms shortly after competing in the women’s 10,000-meter run for Greece at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and she has since worked to address them.

It’s a story more than a few athletes know. It’s one that needs to be told.

“It was very poignant and powerful; it was very courageous of her to reach out and put that out there,” Dr. Mark Hiatt, a Dartmouth clinical psychologist who works with the Dartmouth Peak Performance program, told me recently. “It’s important to raise awareness. There is still a stigma in life around mental health. We need to promote that students are individuals with mental health concerns, that they’re not alone and help is available.”

It’s extremely difficult to admit you require help, and doing so comes with particular challenges for athletes at any level of sport. These are people who have been trained to produce the best out of themselves in stressful, physical situations, to be strong and steadfast in the face of adversity.

Pappas (who declined a Valley News interview request through Dartmouth sports information for this column) arrived in Hanover in 2008 as a highly decorated high school runner out of the San Francisco Bay area. She continued her upward trajectory at Dartmouth, closing her Big Green career with a steeplechase win at the outdoor Heptagonals as a senior. With an unused year of collegiate eligibility in hand, she moved on to Oregon to get a master’s degree and compete at the nexus of American track, winning an NCAA cross country championship with the Ducks in 2012.

Pappas had started to ascend the international ladder by then. As she said in the Times video, the attributes that created her Olympic opportunity — “I’ve always been an extremely motivated person” — didn’t prepare her for a severe mental health challenge that followed a series of physical injuries and setbacks.

“Athletes are geared toward wanting to work really hard, and there’s kind of a mind-set of ‘we’re going to tough it out and grind it out,’ ” Hiatt pointed out. “They do that in practices, games, over long seasons, in training and the year-round process. That … can maybe get in the way of seeking help or reaching out with the struggle: the sense of going it alone, needing to tough it out.”

Hiatt said the signals that may indicate a possible mental health issue mirrored those Pappas described in her video: “Being aware of stress and how it’s impacting them, changes in mood, changes in sleep, worry and rumination,” Hiatt said. Family history also had a role with Pappas, who was just short of 5 years old when she lost her mother to suicide.

Pappas said she finally gained an understanding of her own situation when a doctor described depression as a “scratch” on her brain that was just like any physical injury and should be rehabilitated as such.

“That was like the flip of the switch for me,” she said. “It made me feel like I could heal.”

Dartmouth Peak Performance, sometimes known as DP2, was launched in 2011 as Pappas entered her senior year. It includes athlete mental health counseling and treatment among its offerings. A typical situation would involve an athlete meeting with Hiatt or someone else at the school’s counseling center “to talk about what’s going on and put a game plan together,” he said. The hope is to get a conversation going, surmount the stigma attached to a mental illness diagnosis and set up a route toward recovery.

From her own experience, Pappas believes athletes should approach mental health injuries just as they do their physical injuries. In her case, that involved three-times-a-week meetings with a psychiatrist and understanding it would take time to fully recover.

Having family or peer support is crucial as well. Family to Family, an eight-week program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, opened my eyes to mental illness, its causes, treatments and need for understanding when I wanted to learn how to help someone with depression in my life about 10 years ago. I highly recommend it.

Pappas now lives in Los Angeles and counts filmmaking and acting among her many, varied interests. She’s back to running as well.

“I don’t expect to be happy every single day,” she said in the video. “That’s a part of chasing a dream, that I’m going to have these ups and downs, and I can treat them just like I could an injury.”

It’s a message all of us need to hear.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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