College Athlete Mental Health

College Athlete Mental Health

Kelly Pease
Editorial Contributor

According to Athletes for Hope, 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, and 30% seek help. Among college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% seek help. According to a recent survey by the NCAA, 1 in 12 college athletes reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function either “constantly” or “most every day.”

The reasons behind these statistics are numerous, and have been well-articulated by former NCAA Division 1 volleyball player and athlete/activist Victoria Garrick. Victoria gave a TED Talk in 2017 called Athletes and Mental Health: The Hidden Opponent. The 21-minute video vividly depicts the unique demands that college athletes face on top of the demands of being a typical student, such as early morning workouts, body image concerns, high expectations, no longer being the best athlete on the team, and barely having any extra time to relax and pursue other interests. There is a constant juggle of student and athletic responsibilities and very little time for self-care. Athletes are trained to push themselves to the limit, and when those limits are pushed to the edges, they dig deep and keep going. Athletes who compete at the collegiate level are used to pushing themselves to the limit. They set high goals, and hold themselves to a high standard. Athletics becomes central to the student athletes’ identity. So, what happens when all of that is suddenly taken away? Unfortunately, because of stigma, mental illness and seeking support can be viewed as a significant imperfection which can deter many athletes from seeking much needed services. 

The past few seasons have proven to be a major challenge for colleges, coaches, families and student athletes alike. For many college athletes, their seasons were over before they even began, while others had their season interrupted quite suddenly at the beginning of the pandemic or midseason because teammates caught the virus. Many teams were operating in a bubble and individual athletes were isolated from critical support networks of family and friends. 

Now more than ever, it is critical that colleges recognize and support their athletes’ mental health. Some schools participated in the first ever college football mental health awareness week last year while other conferences such as the PAC 12 took on mental health initiatives. This year, cardboard cutouts in the stands at the NCAA Final Four tournament are raising funds for organizations that support student athlete mental health. Coaches are recognizing that their athletes are struggling and that mental health is more important now than ever before:

“I can’t imagine that any coaches are sitting out there saying, ‘My team’s in a great place mentally.’” - Geno Auriemma, Women’s Basketball Coach - UConn Athletics

“Mental health is the number 1 thing we have to focus on, to make sure we’re there for them when they stumble, when they’re concerned.” – Pat Kraft, Director of Athletics - Boston College

“Mental health is the single most important health and safety issue facing our student-athletes today.” - Dr. Brian Hainline,  NCAA’s chief medical officer

Victoria Garrick conducted a student athlete survey and found that half of the student-athletes reported having depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, but were too scared to tell anyone or to seek mental health services. Additionally, 69.7 percent of her subjects reported having experienced a mental illness.

The NCAA also conducted college athlete well being surveys in the fall and spring to track the impacts of the pandemic on the athletes. One in 12 college athlete survey respondents reported “constantly” or “almost every day” feeling so depressed that it had been difficult to function, and 60% of men and 55% of women indicated that they were not aware how they could access mental health support in their current location. College  athletes who were living alone, respondents of color, and those with families with economic challenges had the highest levels of mental health concerns. College athletes who were seniors reported a sense of loss daily which was 1.5 times the rate of underclassmen. Overall, “concerns over mental health were 150 - 250% higher than historically reported by the athletes that participated in these surveys.”

Data repeatedly shows that many college athletes are hesitant to seek support. Now more than ever it is crucial for schools to offer resources to their athletes. Adding multiple options to reach college athletes where they are, both geographically and in terms of readiness to seek support, will offer choice and make it easier for them to connect with mental health providers. Christie Campus Health works with schools to provide such options. For example, a mental health support line that student athletes can call 24/7/365 can help student athletes to find services despite potential geographical and scheduling constraints. Christie Campus Health Navigators can help to connect athletes to resources in a supportive way. Additionally, our Campus Awareness team can work with coaches and athletics staff to promote mental health services in the best way for their students. 

Christie Campus Health can help colleges ensure that their athletes will always have awareness of and access to the mental health support they need and deserve.

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