There is a renewed interest in the mental health and well-being of collegiate athletes in light of the several recent high-profile situations and tragedies that have taken place.
These include the decision by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles to withdraw from several events at the 2021 Summer Olympics to focus on her mental health, and the tragic suicides in 2022 of Stanford soccer player Katie Meyer, James Madison University softball star Lauren Bernett, and University of Wisconsin-Madison runner Sarah Shulze.
College is often one of the most stressful times in a person’s life, and collegiate athletes often feel intense pressure to do well in both school and sports. Juggling the demands of practice, competition, academics, and their personal lives can leave them feeling overwhelmed.
While it is not uncommon for this to happen to a degree among all students, studies show that signs of depression are considerably higher in collegiate athletes. Plus, there is still a perceived stigma surrounding mental health, leaving some collegiate athletes who are struggling feeling trapped and alone, even when there are mental health resources available to them.
An NCAA survey of collegiate athletes, released in May 2022, shows that:
Many believe colleges need to do more to support the mental well-being of athletes. According to the NCAA constitution, each member school is “charged with facilitating 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, a survey by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and Mantra Health (July 2022) found that:
To change the narrative on mental well-being among collegiate athletes, and reduce the likelihood of more tragedies, it’s important for college students to understand how to support their own mental well-being by not being afraid to speak out. And it’s important for college and university administrations to implement policies and provide resources focused on supporting students’ mental health.
Many collegiate athletes report they don’t feel like they have permission to struggle. There is often a culture of “mental toughness” in sports and pressure to perform. It’s important for students to:
1) Pay attention to warning signs that their mental well-being may be suffering. Common signs and symptoms include:
2) Understand how to recognize and seek help to address challenges to their mental well-being. These could include financial challenges, emotional challenges like loneliness and isolation, challenges with substance misuse, and even exposure to societal issues such as racism.
3) Educate themselves about the available resources on their campus and in their community. Athletes, and all students, should know how to connect to campus crisis lines, counselors on or off campus, academic advisors or professors, coaches and others in their athletic community, or the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
4) Be aware of their strengths and connect with others.
(Source: Vector Solutions course: Mental Well-Being for Athletes)
For colleges and universities, the NCAA Sport Science Institute recommends four Mental Health Best Practices to support and promote student-athlete mental wellness:
1) Qualified care. Ensure mental health care of collegiate athletes is provided by a licensed individual who is qualified to provide mental health services.
2) Action plans. Athletics departments are encouraged to work with sports medicine and campus mental health services to develop written emergency and non-emergency action plans for situations in which collegiate athletes face a mental health challenge.
3) Screenings. Schools are encouraged to develop and apply mental health screening tools, as well as a written mental health referral plan, prior to an athlete’s initial participation in college athletics.
4) Education. Athletics departments are encouraged to educate athletes, coaches, and faculty athletics representatives to help create a culture that promotes care-seeking, mental well-being, and resilience.
Other best practices for athletic departments may include adding mental health to the department’s mission, investing in mental health care, recognizing the signs of student burnout, and for athletic coaches to engage in active listening and encourage students to talk about any mental health concerns.
Mental Well-Being for Athletes is a new 30-minute online course for college students. It provides collegiate athletes with an overview of mental well-being, as well as several strategies to maintain and strengthen mental well-being while in college. Topics covered include:
The Mental Well-Being for Athletes course is part of Vector Solutions’ Athletics library of courses specifically designed to meet the needs of collegiate athletes and athletic staff by providing training on important prevention, mental well-being, and safety topics. The courses and dedicated platform address prevention through athletics-specific content, implementation, and reporting. Other courses include: