With an increased realization of the connection between physical and mental health, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) released a Mental Health Best Practices guide in 2016 that offered recommendations, resources and procedures for coaches, athletic departments, administrators, athletic trainers and others to assist student athletes with mental health related concerns.
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 health-promoting environment.
It was an attempt to focus more on how to better accommodate the emotional demands placed on student athletes. However, with the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic, more athletes started reaching out about their mental health battles. In 2021, 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.
The pandemic has put even more stress and pressure on student athletes and it has shown.
Just six months into 2022, six college athletes had died by suicide correlating to mental health: Katie Meyer, a Stanford soccer player, Arlana Miller, a Southern cheerleader, Lauren Bernett, a James Madison softball player, Sarah Shulze, a Wisconsin cross country runner, Jayden Hill, a Northern Michigan track and field athlete and Robert Martin, a Binghamton lacrosse player.
Their deaths have shown that even with the attempts by the NCAA, it is still not enough for student athletes. The question that arises is why is mental health in college athletics still struggling with the NCAA attempting to do more?
The issue is that, while the NCAA requires individual college athletic departments to follow guides, game plans, suggestions and more, it is up to the individual colleges and coaches to actually enforce and help their athletes with what the NCAA gave them.
Collegiate athletic departments often lack mental health resources. At bigger universities, there may only be one counselor asked to serve the needs of more than 20 teams. At smaller schools, there may not even be a dedicated mental health staff.
In the study, fewer than half of students surveyed by the NCAA felt they would be comfortable personally seeking support from a mental health provider on campus, while approximately only 50% of athletes reported that coaches take mental health concerns of their student-athletes seriously.
The main reason that the athletes often avoid disclosing mental health concerns is because of the perceived negative consequences that can result in being rejected by teammates or coaches. It creates the problem of student-athlete mental health as it inhibits open dialogue, education and the development of resources.
To fix this there needs to be better mental health care at each individual college. It starts with eliminating the stigma that you have to be in crisis to seek help, changing the narrative around the mental health conversation and understanding the performance pressure of being a student and an athlete.
It also requires coaches to be properly trained to the best of their ability when it comes to understanding mental health, knowing warning signs, setting boundaries and creating support systems.
Individual non-profit organizations are also trying to help on campuses. Two popular ones are Morgan’s Message and The Hidden Opponent, which are run by student athletes aiming to discuss better mental health practices in their athletic departments.
Athletes are also taking their own mental health into their own hands. Over the summer Harry Miller, a junior Ohio State football player, announced his own “medical retirement” from the game due to his mental health. He shared it in a Twitter post that he may have died by suicide if not for the help he received from this coach.
However, no matter how much is done, mental health will continue to be a part of the athletic community and be a thing that athletes have to face. Having a support system from individual colleges and coaches so athletes can stay engaged will help with progress moving forward. The institutions not only need to listen to the NCAA but also to their own players.
Six deaths in a year is too much. One death is even too much. These young student athletes play in college to continue playing the sport they loved as a child, not to face mental battles that make them question if their life is worth living.
Featured photo courtesy of cottonbro studio, Pexels