For students, beginning undergraduate study presents a period of opportunity and growth. However, the sweeping changes that come with entering young adulthood and a new educational environment can cause mental health challenges to arise. In 2020-2021, over 60% of students reported symptoms that indicated they met the criteria for at least one mental health problem.
There are many factors impacting college students which can affect how they experience, process, and manage mental health challenges, with different groups of students facing specific problems that require specific interventions. One such group which has generated increased conversation is intercollegiate student-athletes. Student-athletes experience similar challenges to their non-athlete peers while also managing specific stressors related to their athletics participation. Both student-athletes and professionals alike have been calling for the expansion of resources dedicated to mental health. With increased knowledge of the need for student-athlete mental health support programs, some athletics departments across all NCAA divisions have begun to successfully expand the support they offer to student-athletes.
Student-Athlete Mental Health Concerns
Student-athletes are about as likely to experience symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions as their non-athlete peers. However, student-athletes experiencing negative mental health symptoms are less likely to seek help from mental health professionals; this can be attributed to a variety of factors, including fear of retribution from coaches or teammates and/or mistrust and discomfort with non-athletics personnel (such as counselors and therapists). Additionally, the culture of toughness expected in many athletics programs can create a resistance to help-seeking among athletes who don’t want to be perceived as weak by coaches, peers, and the general public. This decreased likelihood of seeking help puts student-athletes at a higher risk of several mental health concerns, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and more.
Student-athletes also have many unique life circumstances which put them under additional stress, such as physical injury/rehabilitation and a physically demanding practice and game schedule, time-consuming travel schedules which can detract from their academic and personal well-being, increased visibility to the general public, the transition into and out of college athletics, among others. This has led to what some are calling a crisis of mental health concerns among college student-athletes. In response to these concerns, athletics departments and universities at large have created or expanded upon the resources they offer to student-athletes.
Mental Health Interventions for Student-Athletes
The types of programs and interventions for student-athletes vary significantly across institutions. Larger institutions with higher populations of student-athletes and increased access to funding generally have more resources to create expansive support programs. However, many smaller institutions with fewer resources have begun to think creatively and establish cross-campus partnerships in order to establish their own support programs. Additionally, several outside organizations have stepped in to raise awareness of mental health concerns among student-athletes as well.
Some athletics departments will have a sports psychologist or a team of them on staff who are available to meet with student-athletes. This is an appealing option for many institutions because sports psychologists specialize in working with athletes, which can create a familiarity that helps to allay some of the stigma towards help-seeking among student-athletes. However, because these psychologists aren’t directly affiliated with the teams like a coach or teammate, it gives student-athletes a level of privacy and protection against stigma and retaliation. For example, the University of Southern California has a staff of sports psychologists that provide an extensive list of services to USC student-athletes, including individual therapy, group therapy for student-athletes experiencing injury, on-call crisis services, training sessions for student-athletes, consulting with coaches, and more.
At institutions where hiring a sports psychologist isn’t feasible, many athletics departments have partnered with university counseling centers to provide counseling services and targeted programming for student-athletes. One example of this is the Check Up from the Neck Up program at Division III Widener University, which provides talks about topics related to skill-building around managing mental health challenges in a campus space known as the Health, Unity, and Belonging room, or H.U.B., which was designed to be a relaxing space for student-athletes and coaches. Widener student-athletes were surveyed on the types of topics they wanted to hear and their schedule needs, and their feedback was incorporated into the programming. This program is a partnership between Widener University Athletics and the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office at the institution.
Larissa Gillespie, associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at Widener, co-created the program alongside CAPS staff members and provided guidance to others looking to establish similar programs at their institution.
“Build relationships on campus,” Gillespie said. “There are and have been so many people involved in the creation of the space that we are now providing for student-athletes and the programming.”
There are also many student-led initiatives for student-athletes related to mental health, wellbeing, and wellness promotion. For example, the athletics department at Division II Grand Valley State University has — as a complement to their other programming related to mental health, called LAKERS LISTEN — a team of student-athletes who serve as advocates for mental health resource utilization called the ANCHOR Team. These student-athletes receive training from a representative from the University Counseling Center and provide peer mentoring/support to fellow athletes, as well as advocating for the utilization of LAKERS LISTEN resources among student-athletes and serving on the GVSU athletics department’s Student-Athlete Wellness board.
Some outside organizations have also taken steps to raise awareness around student-athlete mental health and wellness. One such organization is Morgan’s Message, which aims to remove stigma surrounding mental health treatment among student-athlete populations by normalizing conversations around mental health, providing support to student-athletes, and empowering them to speak up around mental health. Created in honor of Morgan Rodgers, a Duke women’s lacrosse student-athlete who died of suicide in 2019, Morgan’s Message works to achieve their mission and honor Morgan’s legacy through initiatives such as raising awareness with their podcast, which shares student-athlete mental health stories, and ambassador programs for student-athletes on college, high school, club/travel teams, as well as other youth programs and on an at-large basis.
Recommendations for Practice
The level of access to resources across athletics departments varies widely, as does the culture and level of buy-in amongst university/athletics personnel and student-athletes. However, athletics staff members, student-athletes, and other university employees are working creatively to meet the specific needs of student-athletes at their institution. Whether an institution has the capability to employ a full-time staff of sports psychologists or they instead choose to establish partnerships with other campus offices in order to take advantage of those resources, there are many pathways to establishing support programs for student-athletes.
Mental health screening can be a helpful tool for identifying the issues student-athletes are experiencing, who can then be referred to various resources. Additionally, increased education and awareness of student-athlete mental health concern amongst both athletics and non-athletics affiliated faculty, staff, and students is crucial to creating a culture in athletics that is more conducive to mental wellbeing. This need for increased awareness is twofold. First, non-athletics faculty, staff, and counselors should familiarize themselves with the issues and barriers to treatment student-athletes face so they can provide informed care. Additionally, coaches and athletics personnel should be familiar with mental health resources provided for students at their institution, as well as outside resources, to share with students experiencing a crisis. Student-athletes can also be looped in to raise awareness of these resources amongst their peers. Finally, athletics departments should investigate how they can dedicate their time and resources to programs for student-athletes.
The NCAA offers a host of resources related to student-athlete wellbeing, including many educational resources and a guideline for best practices for supporting student-athlete mental health. These resources provide a starting point for education and establishing programs for mental health support. With improved education and practice, the culture surrounding mental health in athletics can shift to one of care and support for student-athletes.