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“Everyone is going through something that we can’t see. The thing is, because we can’t see it, we don’t know who’s going through what and we don’t know when and we don’t always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It’s part of life.”
–Kevin Love, NBA Player
In the past couple of months, we have witnessed numerous college athletes’ tragic deaths by suicide at colleges across the country, including Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, James Madison University, and Southern University and A&M College. Mental health concerns are at an all-time high among student-athletes and, unfortunately, may have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA states mental health concerns were highest for women, student-athletes of color, queer athletes, and student-athletes in economic hardship. As past Division 1 student-athletes, we know all too well the stressors of having to perform on the field and in the classroom while balancing the daily struggles of everyday life. Additionally, student-athletes are exposed to factors that affect their mental health and wellness (e.g., factors such as performance anxiety, phobic anxiety, social anxiety, and substance abuse). In order for athletic departments to provide sustainable conditions for student-athletes, they must be aware of mental health issues, be trained to recognize issues when they emerge, and have resources available to deal with the issues. An athlete’s emotional well-being plays an important role in his or her academic, athletic, social, and spiritual success.
Oftentimes, within the culture of college athletics, physical health takes precedence over mental health for athletic performance; however, the importance of mental health cannot be overlooked. Just as athletic departments provide sports medicine services to address physical injuries, they must factor in student-athlete’s mental health. Coaches and administrators alike must invest in a holistic experience. Our success and mental well-being depend upon it. Students-athletes may avoid seeking professional help as the culture of sports demands mental toughness, and showing signs of weakness is usually not acceptable. Through our short narratives, we offer you a glimpse of what it was like to be a student-athlete and how important mental health awareness must be for current student-athletes today and future student-athletes.
I have loved playing volleyball since I was a kid. I was determined that volleyball would take me through college. Unfortunately, the turning point of my collegiate volleyball career hit me before the very first day of school as a freshman in college. During two-a-days, at the beginning of intense practice, while attempting to block an aggressive hit by one of my teammates, I came down on both of my shins only to experience an excruciating pain shoot up both of my legs. As the trainer began to massage both of my shins, I could only sit there, helpless, and cry while negative thoughts ran through my mind. After going to the doctor for X-rays, I could only think to myself, “What if I never play volleyball again?” “What if my scholarship is taken?” I felt helpless. Subsequently, the doctor began to explain that I would need surgery at the earliest convenience or I would never be able to play volleyball again. I felt mentally and physically defeated. Every dream that I had of becoming a D1 collegiate athlete had disappeared. I became frightened because I did not know what was going to happen next. My world had completely fallen around me, yet I knew despite my situation right now, I had to think encouraging thoughts. I remember reaching out to my coach to let her know how emotionally drained I was. I will never forget how intentional she was in creating space to let my emotions be free. A space where I could breathe and seek professional help. As a freshman, I quickly realized the importance of prioritizing my mental health. I did not realize it at the time, but getting hurt was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. My talent had gotten me to where I was, but my intentional well-being practice would take me to where I needed to be. I thank my coach for establishing space for me to express my feelings of discomfort and disappointment. This allowed me to understand that it is okay to be vulnerable and I do not always have to be ‘tough.’
I Am More Than an Athlete
As a former student-athlete and football player, I believe that our student-athlete mental health care has never been more critical. I saw far too many of my teammates struggle with their mental health and not speak out; the stigmatization of reaching out for help is a significant barrier to seeking services and a risk factor for escalating mental health issues. I saw teammates self-medicate to cope with the stressors they face, and I saw several of them never return to the playing field or the classroom after substance-induced psychosis. In my field of clinical and mental health counseling, I believe it is crucial to allow student-athletes to define their mental health needs and unique ways of cooperating. Defining includes more than just the content of their words. However, the process of witnessing suffering and having the courage to be curious is to connect with the human being who is an athlete rather than the athlete who happens to be human. Curiosity in the face of uncertainty and fear enables the listener to find understanding from the speaker’s perception and thus enact change within the system to which the two parties, speaker and listener, belong. We have an opportunity to do something different. With student-athletes conditioned to the current norm of silent suffering, a system of preferring Saturday idolatry as opposed to authentic connection, perhaps we should take the lead in inviting athletes to be human by inviting vulnerability through dialogue.
Baseball Was What I Did, Not Who I Am
As a former collegiate baseball student-athlete, I have seen collegiate athletics in its entirety after competing at this level for nearly half of a decade of my life. The journey is just as incredible, if not more, as it seems on the outside. The people you meet, the places you go. What those on the outside do not see is the reality of the life we live. They do not feel our pressures to perform, to succeed in the classroom, or to represent our universities as a figure of strength and resilience. The difficulties we face go deeper than just a bad day in the yard or a bad grade on a test. I have seen teammates crushed by these pressures to the point of questioning their love for a game they have cherished for their entire lives. To the point of wanting to quit. To the point of self-medicating. To their breaking point. Yet the people on the outside will never see this side of it, as day after day, we button up that jersey and go out there to compete and represent our universities with everything we have left to offer. The uniform can sometimes feel like a mask. Every student-athlete’s story is unique, but the hesitation in reaching out for help seems too familiar. It is time to have conversations about our struggles, and it is time to create a culture that prioritizes mental health at the forefront of the student-athlete experience. It is more important than any performance, game, practice, or class deadline. Athletics are what we do; it does not define who we are. Who we are is not always that fearless competitor you see out on the field.
We leave recommendations for coaches, administrators, and student-athletes regarding the importance of mental health for student-athletes. It is critical, at a time like now, that athletic departments and coaches enact mental-health practices as a part of the athletic culture. Your students are depending upon it. It is possible to create real change in how we think and talk about mental health if we work together to incorporate it into our regular conversations. Discussing mental health issues can be challenging; however, the fact remains that athletes can be the key to tackling the stigma and challenges facing mental health.
First and foremost, it is okay to seek help. The stigma around mental health is plaguing our communities, and we want you to know that as a student-athlete, the pressure of always performing at your best can be very daunting. Connect with a friend or family member and share your story about mental health challenges. An interaction as such may be exactly what you need to feel better and connect, and this may open doors for you to identify professional help. All of this takes a certain level of vulnerability, and we understand that it may take time; nonetheless, we want to provide options for you to engage in meaningful conversations about your mental well-being. Sharing your story, in a safe environment, can be a powerful tool for you and others who may be facing similar challenges. Developing a mental-wellness regime is one of the most critical practices to your well-being. Please do not go another day without being unheard. You are more than enough.
To the coaches reading, we thank you for the leadership and commitment you relentlessly give to your student-athletes. Just as your players invest in you and the culture you create, we want to thank you for investing in them. We trust that you are not only creating successful student-athletes but successful leaders in life. Along the road to success comes struggle, and we encourage you to stand with us all and have conversations with your student-athletes surrounding their mental health. Open the conversation to all, and promote your institution’s assistance and resources. Establish in your culture that it is okay not to be okay. Become deeper than a coach or teammate, but a friend with a listening ear who shows authentic humility and care. Just as you coach and support your players as athletes, support their humanity with the same commitment and attention. The freedom to be vulnerable and human is necessary for connection and trust. These steps toward growth can change the stigma and establish a collective built upon respect and humility within collegiate athletics.
To the administrators who read this article, we want to thank you for taking the time to invest in the mental health of the student-athletes you serve by hearing our voices. Your dedication and intentional effort after seeing this article’s title indicate that you are willing to learn more, understand the challenges that your student-athletes face and reflect on how our perceptions coexist within your framework. We admire you for these strengths and the humility you have shown in reading our three perspectives. We now speak directly to you, the administrators of the sports we love, and the leaders that play such a pivotal role in the change we hope to see: please recognize and use the humility you have demonstrated to read this article to open the conversation with the student-athletes you serve. We cannot speak for them; we are not student-athletes in your program. We offer our perspective with hope for change and with faith in you that these words and our testimonies might encourage an invitation to join in relationship and humanity across the artificial, structural divides in college athletics.
We must normalize conversations around mental health for student-athletes. A student-athlete struggling with suicidal thoughts may find it helpful to normalize conversations about what they are going through. Programs devoted to student-athlete mental wellness, whether they come from inside or outside athletic departments, could literally save a life.
- If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately.
- If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at (988).
- If you’re uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can also text NAMI to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.
Disclaimer: HigherEdJobs encourages free discourse and expression of issues while striving for accurate presentation to our audience. A guest opinion serves as an avenue to address and explore important topics, for authors to impart their expertise to our higher education audience and to challenge readers to consider points of view that could be outside of their comfort zone. The viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions expressed in the above piece are those of the author(s) and don’t imply endorsement by HigherEdJobs.