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, according to a study done by Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
In recent years, the NCAA has strived to create understanding and facilitate conversation around the topic through its Mind, Body, and Sport handbook created to introduce the concept of mental-health with student-athletes in mind and give coaching staff guidance on how to manage mental health on their individual teams.
According to the authors of the handbook, "One of the primary concerns regarding the prevalence of mental illness among student-athletes is that it may affect not only their success in academics and athletics but also their general well-being".
Consider for an example Aaron Taylor, one of the ambassadors of the movement to end the stigma of mental illness for student-athletes, two-time All-American, Lombardi Trophy winner, and first-round NFL draft pick:
"I later discovered that many of my issues stemmed from the internal pressure I placed on myself to reach some unattainable level of greatness ... Due to fear of looking weak or being judged, I hid my condition from those closest to me, including my coaches and teammates. Even though I lived my life in the spotlight, I was suffering in silence.”
Coaches, this is your problem. We both know that an athlete who is not mentally strong cannot be focused on the field. We have to stop asking people to disregard their feelings, and teach them how to deal with them. For that reason, I'm here to help and I want this to be as easy as possible to integrate into your teams. After finding this research, I wanted to reach out to some student-athletes to hear their feedback on what we can do as a whole to not only show that we care about their mental health, but that we will partner with them to get the support they need if we cannot provide it to them ourselves.
1. Start the Conversation.
When I started interviewing athletes regarding the subject of mental health, I was shocked. Many of them had never even been presented the opportunity to talk about mental health in regards to the increased pressure as a college athlete. Coaches need to take the responsibility to proactively offer resources to athletes. There is no reason to wait until it gets to the point of extreme depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
"Most don’t know there is someone to talk to if they are suffering from depression or hard times." - Crizon, Football
"[We need] mental health education and coaches encourage other players to speak up for their teammates if they see something wrong." - Jesse, Football
"I think coaches need to continue to get the players family members involved as a safety net. For athletes that don't have that family support, coaches will have to step up and be that role model." - Nicole, Basketball
"My coach made some people go to therapy. One of my teammates was a very angry young lady so she made that young lady go to therapy. She was against it at first but my teammate said it helped her a lot! We all saw improvement in her, in all areas." - Keanna, Track and Field
“A good coach can tell when [there is] something mentally wrong with a player. Some coaches may just demote them and tell them to get it together instead of finding the root cause. Coaches expect you to not be soft so they normally overlook things.” - Benjamin*, Football
2. Build Real Connections
Athletes are people too but from the conversations I've had with student-athletes they aren't sure if some coaches remember that, and honestly neither am I. Student-athletes want coaches to remember that they are more than a body to fill a position; they have life tragedies, struggles, and other issues off the court that may require the coaching staff's support.
"When you make a connection with someone you’ve invested 4 years in, it makes being away from home, away from family, in a new environment, talking to someone when going through something, is hurting or feeling alone - that much easier." - Iyani, Soccer
"There are coaches out there who don't care about the player's education or allowing them to have a social life; as long as that player is there to benefit the coach and their needs to win a game or championship that will be the only thing they focus on." - Nicole, Basketball
"Allocate time away from football to formulate a bond with players. It’s easier to care for a being when they aren’t just a piece of a puzzle." - Julius, Football
“Just make sure there is a strong relationship between the coaching staff and the athlete. Most problems go unnoticed and ultimately untreated because no one is communicating with one another.” - Julian, Track and Field
"They want to win so bad that they may push an athlete too far or neglect his/her thoughts related to non-sports issues. You have to give your athlete a chance to clear their mind - it can't always be about sports." - Tyler, Track and Field
3. Effectively Manage Injuries
It's no secret that athletes are often pushed to work through injuries, and even as a dancer I recall working through several tendon injuries and was told that working through it would help heal it. Whether or not that is true, it's important that coaches and trainers are aware of the mental health impacts of injuries for athletes.
"Emotional response to injury is normal", according to Margot Putukian Director of Athletic Medicine at Princeton, but "problematic reactions are those that either do not resolve or worsen over time, or where the severity of symptoms seem excessive."
Some severe symptoms include the development of an eating disorder, excessive anger or rage, and substance abuse. It is crucial is that coaches do not interfere with proper medical care or ask students to lie about their actual condition, especially in joint and concussion injuries due to the long-term consequences of ignored injuries.
Check out this story:
"My coaches had our trainers wrapped around their finger and wouldn’t allow any of us to visit a doctor without her final approval.
We had several injuries that could have been prevented had she allowed us to have the proper care. They were great at making you believe that you weren’t being tough and that you could push through the pain.
I believed them for awhile until over the years [my knee injury] worsened. I only saw my parents twice a year so by the time I went home it was at its worse and my parents forced me to go see a doctor.
When doing so I was told that if I didn’t have surgery immediately I would be in a wheelchair by the age of 25. "
- Gabrielle, Softball
"My coaches cared about my health but only about me being able to compete. Sometimes they would make me feel bad for being hurt. That used to make me feel terrible & would really get to me." - Keanna, Track & Field
Coaches - we know you love the sport and your team. Now we are asking you to show just how much you love them by supporting them in mental health in addition to physical health.
You need a program that runs itself, and I can help you to put the systems in place to build mental health into your already existing programs without adding to your already full plate. Click here now so we can work together to create winning environments, on and off the field.
*By request, the name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
Gabriella Payne builds teams and communities through inspiration and strategic confidence development. She works with universities, athletic groups, and corporations to help students and recent graduates transform their mental thought patterns by teaching new, healthier habits. She is also an advocate for healthy relationships and teaches a series called "See It Coming".