Reader warning: this article contains sensitive topics around young people and mental health.
Take a quick walk down memory lane with me to the early 2000s. I was preparing to leave the Chocolate Bubble (s/o Hershey, Pa.), and head east to the vibrant Jersey coastline to become a Monmouth University Hawk. I packed up a few memories from home and the matching quilts my mom made for me and my roommate, and I was off.
There I was, a bright-eyed, enthusiastic 17-year-old college freshman and Division 1 athlete ready to take on the “real world.” Fast forward 48 hours and we had already had a full physical, six practices, two weight training sessions, six less-than-stellar cafeteria meals, all propped up by a few winks of sleep…and in between each of these moments I cried about a pint of tears (the homesickness was real).
Fast forward again another three weeks, and while the homesickness started to wane, I was in for a whole new world of hurt – college classes. Multiple practices and meetings a day with my teammates and coaches was one thing, but how was I ever going to add classes and schoolwork to my already packed schedule?
My experience is no different than that of the more than half a million NCAA student-athletes across the country. Luckily, I had a great, capable support system to lean on and help guide me through the process, and I’m proud to say I came out on the other end of that four-year journey a better athlete, a better student, and most importantly, a better human being. But one thing I know to be true looking back on those years is that if I didn’t have that support – individuals I was comfortable confiding in when things got tough – I’m not sure where I’d be now, or how I would have gotten through some of those tough times.
As World Mental Health Day (October 10) draws near, I can’t help but reflect on those years and be immensely grateful for those around me and how difficult it must be to be a student-athlete today – the pressures they face have only grown exponentially. According to respondents in the Mantra Health & NAIA Survey from 2022, the top three factors impacting student-athlete mental health are balancing academic and athletic responsibilities (92%), interpersonal relationships (82%), and financial security (77%). The increased demands in the classroom, the desire to be the best on the field, scholarships tied to performance on and off the field, and the prevalence and impact of social media are just some of the factors weighing on these young people. Add to it the other challenges facing college students like being away from home and adapting to new surroundings, and it quickly becomes a slippery slope for one’s mental health and overall well-being.
The Harsh Reality
The mental health of our student-athletes has been a national topic for years, but it really came to a head during the Covid-19 pandemic and following the sharp increase of student-athlete suicides in March-April 2022. Male, female, soccer, lacrosse, cheerleading, freshman, senior, black, white – it doesn’t matter. Mental health issues do not discriminate.
And this is not a problem just plaguing some of our student-athletes. In 2022, the NCAA did a follow-up study to two well-being studies it conducted in 2020, and not surprisingly “student-athletes continue to report elevated levels of mental health concerns.” In fact, that study revealed mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression are nearly two times higher than pre-pandemic rates.
According to the NCAA constitution, member schools must facilitate an environment that “reinforces physical and mental health within athletics by ensuring access to appropriate resources and open engagement with respect to physical and mental health.” However, of the nearly 10,000 respondents to that 2022 NCAA study, more than half said they would still not feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.
Why is that? In theory, coaches and training staff are the individuals closest to these student-athletes and the ones in the best position to intervene. But in reality, are they even equipped to handle these mental health matters? More often than not, their experience and expertise is specific to pushing and training the body, not the mind. What mandatory training do coaches and trainers receive that allows them to play a pivotal, 360-degree role in the off-field lives of their student-athletes?
So, what’s being done to help student-athletes?
The NCAA has long faced scrutiny for its inaction in matters of athletes’ mental health. In 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it created the Mental Health Advisory Group (MHAG), which is made up of medical professionals who advise the NCAA on mental health science and policy, paired with representation across the NCAA. But it met for the first time in 2022 – two years later – and it’s still in its “consultation period.” We won’t see any reports from the MHAG till January 2024, so the jury is still out on its effectiveness.
Although the NCAA is putting the onus on the schools, they are attempting to arm them with some resources to help guide their on-campus initiatives. Some schools (s/o Rutgers and their Behavior Health & Sport Psychology group) and even athletic conferences (check out what the Ivy and Patriot Leagues are doing here) are answering the urgent call to invest in additional resources for their student-athletes.
But most are still not doing nearly enough. According to the Mantra Health & NAIA Survey, 92% of respondents say there is on-campus counseling available, but they cite limited hours, bandwidth and expertise working with student-athletes as reasons why the majority of student-athletes are being referred off-campus.
Student-athletes have unique needs, and resources must be tailored to fit those needs in order to make a real difference. Furthermore, athletic departments, including coaches and directors, are also asking for more training: 90% wish they had mental health training, while 86% of athletic departments wish they had formal mental health training for students. Finally, 92% of athletic departments don’t have but want psychiatry services available for student-athletes.* Clearly there is a need and a desire to do more – expanded knowledge, more training, and increased resourcing (read: $$$) are core areas to focus on.
Protecting Our Future
Nike. Comcast. Bank of America. IBM. Whole Foods. Hewlett Packard (HP). General Electric (GE). The current Chief Executive Officers of these major corporations were also student-athletes. Today’s generation of student-athletes aren’t just part of the future, they are the future. They’re future CEOs and entrepreneurs. They’re future teachers and doctors. They’re current and future role models for the next generation.
So, if you’re a parent, an educator, a marketer, a chief executive, a sports fan, a human being, with World Mental Health Day on the horizon, are you doing enough for young athletes in your community? Can you learn more, participate in a training, or help influence the time, resources and money going toward this cause? Think about it, then act on it. It’s a challenge that will take all of us to solve.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
*Source: Mantra Health & NAIA Survey 2022