On the checklist of everything a college athlete must succeed at, mental health is usually not included. Instead, mental health is becoming the quiet crisis in college sports.
Alarmingly, a recent National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) study found that college athletes will experience more mental health issues than their non-athletic counterparts. The study also pointed out that college athletes are less likely to seek out professional help than non-athletes when struggling.
The statistics are startling: 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Among that group, 30% seek help. But of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% do.
Playing sports does not make athletes immune to mental health challenges. A part of an already vulnerable age group, collegiate student athletes experience stressors others their age do not. These include practice and travel commitments, performance expectations, in addition to the normal pressures of college life with classes, relationships, jobs and more.
There is this common tendency among athletes, coaches and staff to minimize mental health disorders or psychological distress because of the expectations of strength, stability and mental toughness inherent in the culture of sports.
As a result, athletes often avoid disclosing mental health concerns, especially if the perceived negative consequence results in being rejected by teammates or coaches. Stigma further worsens the problem of student-athlete mental health as it inhibits open dialogue, education and the development of resources.
All the time performance is considered more important than the personal growth and character development that builds a foundation for well-being. This is due to the fact that college athletes have usually been taught their whole life to be tough and to push through, fear, failure and feeling bad. It is once again ingrained in the culture of sport.
Consequently, the moment an athlete believes they are struggling mentally, the athlete naturally goes to deny it, disregard it and ignore it. It can be embarrassing, confusing and scary. The idea of reaching out for help is often not even considered an option to most athletes.
Declining mental health can affect performance on the field, track, court or pool, leading to a higher risk of physical injury. This is concerning because physical injuries are cited as one of the most common major stressors faced by student athletes. They can create, trigger, unmask or worsen mental health issues.
With an increased realization of the connection between physical and mental health, the NCAA has begun to focus more on how to better accommodate the emotional demands placed on student athletes.
The institution recently released the guide “Mental Health Best Practices,” which offers recommendations, resources and procedures for coaches, athletic departments, administrators, athletic trainers and others to assist student athletes with concerns related to mental health. Some of the key components discussed in the guide include the importance of clinically licensed practitioners, procedures for identifying and referring student athletes, pre-participation mental health screenings and creating a supportive environment.
It is vital for athletes to address how they are feeling and seek help right away when they first think they are struggling. There has to be a cultural shift in the sports world that understanding mental health is important, and it is not a weakness to seek help. It is just like a physical injury that needs treatment.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, more athletes have been reaching out about their mental health battles. The NCAA found that in most cases, the rates of reporting these concerns are 1.5-2 times higher than in NCAA pre-pandemic studies.
If you, or somebody you know, is struggling with mental health, an athlete or not, Ramapo does provide counseling services. Services can be found on campus in D-216, called at (201) 684-7522 and be found online at ramapo.edu or ramapoathletics.com.