College Athlete Mental Health

February 06, 2023

College Athlete Mental Health

Kaitlin Gallo, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer

It’s a common prescription for complaints of everyday stress: “Get some exercise. You’ll feel better.” Time and again, research has shown that regular physical activity can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Yet the widespread association of physical and emotional fitness may also help propagate a dangerous assumption that elite athletes are somehow untouched by serious mental health challenges.

At the college level, more student athletes than ever appear to be struggling with their emotional and behavioral health. Between 2020 and 2021, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) conducted multiple surveys assessing the wellbeing of several thousand student athletes. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic correlated with reports of elevated mental health concerns—1.5 to 2 times higher in fall 2021 compared to pre-2020. While the number of student athletes experiencing feelings of hopelessness improved since spring 2020, hundreds said they continued to feel mentally exhausted, anxious and depressed on a regular basis in 2021.

College athletes balance a unique set of responsibilities, along with many of those familiar to their non-athlete peers. Bearing the traditional academic and social pressures of university life as well as athletic ones can leave them feeling overextended and underprepared. In a 2020 profile of Black student athletes published by the Mary Christie Institute (MCI), Matthew Wilson, a member of the track and field team at the University of Pittsburgh, detailed the intense commitment he and other Division I athletes must make to their sport. “‘Everybody says that being a full-time student athlete is like having a job, but it wasn’t until I got here and I got fully into the system – practices, lift schedule, training room, nutrition center – that I realized this was true,’ he said. ‘People talked to me about time management, but there wasn’t really any time left to manage. My schedule is all laid out for me and athletics really takes it all.’”

In addition to the logistical commitment, the pressure to perform at the highest level can weigh on many student athletes. In the same MCI article, University of Pittsburgh basketball player Cara Judkins described the burden of feeling like the entire community was relying on her success: “You’re representing a team, which is representing an athletic department, which is representing a school, and that can really take a toll on a lot of people.” Given their passion and dedication to their sport, some elite athletes suffer from perfectionism, which in turn breeds anxiety and depressive disorders. For those who view their identity and self-worth as tied to their sport or athletic achievements, the prospect of failure may be debilitating.

Student athletes, like non-athletes, from historically marginalized backgrounds, also confront a distinct set of stressors that may influence their mental health. The fall 2021 NCAA study found mental health concerns to be most prevalent among student athletes of color, women and LGBTQ+ students, as well as those dealing with financial challenges. Black student athletes were most likely to say experiencing racism or political disagreements with family or friends negatively impacted their mental health. Female student athletes may also experience pressure related to the way their bodies look. The battle of female college athletes against body composition expectations has received notable coverage, including by The New York Times. In an MCI piece investigating the influx of disordered eating symptoms during the pandemic, one Clark University soccer player explained how essential her sport has been to concerns about body shape and size: “What is my relationship with food going to look like after I play my last soccer game? Because soccer can’t make me feel like it’s okay to eat. Soccer can’t make me feel like I actually have something going for me and that I am somebody.”

When it comes to seeking help for their mental health concerns, expectations of toughness and a culture rejecting signs of weakness may hold student athletes back. In other words, the same attitudes that uphold standards of perfection can keep them from receiving the support they need. The NCAA fall 2021 survey shows that fewer than half of both male and female student athletes said they would be comfortable turning to an on-campus mental health provider.

The tide may be turning, though. In recent years, some of the most high-profile athletes—at the college level and beyond—have opened up about their struggles with mental health. Role models like gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka have taken time off from their sports in an effort to protect and improve their mental state.

As public figures help student athletes to be more willing to ask for mental health assistance, colleges need to ensure they offer the best services to support them. With Christie Campus Health, athletes at our partner colleges and universities can receive support wherever they are. Whether it is instant support from a licensed clinician available 24/7 or access to no-cost counseling and teletherapy sessions through our vast provider network, we are exclusively focused on the unique needs of college students. Our full continuum of care also includes services such as Student Navigators to assist with referrals and specialty care; psychiatric prescribing; evidence-based tools like Headspace, the leading meditation and mindfulness app; SilverCloud, a self-directed and clinically validated ICBT program; and a curated Wellness & Navigation Hub with over 1,000 articles and videos to support student mental health and wellness. Contact Christie Campus Health to learn more.

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