A disturbing national problem is unfolding right before our very eyes. Specifically, increasingly more college student athletes have committed suicide, with countless more struggling on a daily basis to deal with their own mental health challenges. These student athletes are not unique to one race, sport, gender, or school division, lending evidence that we have a real national challenge with respect to the current demands placed on college student athletes from all backgrounds. While it is terribly sad to say goodbye to those athletes who have left us, we must now turn our attention to current student athletes experiencing depression, anxiety, and thoughts of self-harm. What stressors are they dealing with that are negatively impacting their lives? How can we improve upon high school and college athletics so that fewer student athletes are vulnerable to mental health problems in the future? And what mental health resources are available at high schools and colleges nationwide — are counseling support offices adequately staffed, or should more work be done to meet the demands of a population currently struggling to keep up with expectations and demands placed on them from sport demands?
College sports are like a full-time job
Having worked in sports for the last 30 years, I have witnessed many changes, including how “professionalized” college sports have become. What might have felt like a part-time activity to student athletes a generation ago, today’s student athletes know all too well how demanding college student athlete responsibility can be — especially when trying to juggle school and other non-sport requirements and life interests. College student athletes, including those at the small school (Division III) level, are more pressed for time than ever before trying to keep up with intense sport training schedules that often conflict with and/or steal time away from academic responsibilities, as well as future career preparation (i.e. securing an internship). Hitting weight training goals, getting in runs, learning plays, attending team meetings, and carrying out expected student athlete community appearances can leave very little time to get college academic work done — not to mention finding time to relax and enjoy the company of friends. Yes, college sports today are a full-time job, and not every student athlete is aware of these expectations entering college, nor are they mentally equipped to deal with the stress and life skills needed to succeed. Herein is where increasingly more student athletes are feeling this stress, often left to figure things out on their own, unless others learn of their distress and provide mental health support.
A cumulative sport participation effect problem?
Not only should we examine the specifics relating to why so many college athletes are struggling with mental health issues while playing college sports, but we should also turn our attention to how much time, effort, energy, and stress college student athletes have experienced before coming to college. Said a different way, what are the cumulative effects that stem from the intensity of youth sports today? Most college student athletes are the product of time-consuming, serious, year-round training and competition during their childhood — something very different than college athletes from the past. Unlike previous generations, many of today’s college student athletes have played travel ball since elementary school, competed 12 months of the year, traveled across the country to compete, and worked with countless individual position, strength, and skill coaches. We must ask ourselves if colleges are already receiving a compromised student athlete from day one, a student athlete who has experienced so much stress by the point that they get to college that they have little coping ability left — and at a time when they need it most.
We have pushed kids in our country increasingly more with each year that passes. Travel leagues are everywhere, and the demands placed on kids are greater and introduced at an earlier age than previous generations. When we look at the problem through this lens it presents a scary picture of the “business” of amateur sports, and while we might be witnessing student athletes more talented than ever before, we are also seeing the price for such commitments.
What high schools and colleges can do to help
Mental health services vary from college to college, with some schools having an abundance of resources, and others struggling to simply keep a person or two on staff for hundreds of student athletes. At the high school level, rarely are there dedicated sport psychology personnel, but there are counselors and school psychologists who can help. Fortunately, there is a positive trend in place right now where more people are recognizing the need of mental health services for athletes at the high school and college level, and more efforts are being made to expand mental health departments to meet these growing needs. All schools, regardless of size of their mental health department, can better assist student athletes in the future by doing the following:
- Take all threats seriously. Whenever you hear of a student athlete struggling, always take the concern seriously and reach out with genuine empathy and support. While we are seeing more athletes today open up about their mental health challenges, there are still many other athletes who see asking for help as a sign of personal weakness, and keep their problems to themself as a result. It is important that student athletes are regularly made aware of mental health symptoms, as well as where to go to get confidential help and support.
- Make sure adequate resources are available. Colleges need to hire specific mental health clinicians trained in sport psychology or related fields as often as possible, and high schools need to network with clinicians who specialize in working with athletes assuming there is nobody on staff with such credentials.. Student athletes will improve their condition much faster and effectively when working with a counselor who understands the unique lifestyle of a student athlete, including unique pressures and expectations. This understanding helps improve counselor-client rapport, builds trust, and ultimately helps the student athlete cope with his or her distress.
- Link with the community mental health if needed. If your college or university does not have unique mental health services available to student athletes, check around your community to see what resources may be available. Coordinating with community professionals can fill in mental health gaps while colleges work to increase their mental health staff, and can also provide a nice respite for student athletes needing to get off campus for awhile.
- Remove stigma barriers and normalize treatment. High school and college leaders, including presidents, athletic directors, principals, and other personnel in leadership positions, need to regularly remind students of the importance of mental health, as well as knock down unfounded stereotypes suggesting students who seek help are somehow “weak” human beings.
- Revisit athletic department demands. And finally, it is important for high school and college athletic departments to regularly audit the expectations and responsibilities placed on their student athletes. The success of an athletic department should not rely on student athletes working so hard that they are developing mental health issues and vulnerable to poor coping or self-harm.
The number of college student athletes who have committed suicide in recent years is startling, prompting us to look seriously at the intensity of both high school and college athletics, and the expectations coaches expect from their student athletes. Short of there being changes with respect to the shear hours and intensity required to train and compete, it is unlikely this trend is going to reverse-course on its own. It is for these reasons that we pay close attention to the mental health challenges student athletes face, and continue to work hard to provide the resources needed to adequately address problems when they occur.