Mental health tools for student-athletes become a priority at colleges


After her gold medal at the Beijing Games, the 22-year-old snowboarder Chloe Kim said this week that she plans to take off the 2022-23 season to focus on her mental health, citing the need to hit the reset after a “draining year”.

Kim is the latest professional athlete to publicly share the impact competition can have on mental well-being and one of many high-profile performers to at least temporarily retire from sporting events, including the Olympic gymnast Simone Bilestennis star Naomi Osaka and Olympic swimmer Caeleb Dressel.

Bringing these picks into the public sphere has helped normalize what has long been a taboo subject at all levels of athletics. According to a 2019 study in the journal Sports Medicinebarriers that hinder open discussion of mental health issues “include more negative attitudes toward help-seeking among athletes than the general population, as well as greater stigma and lower mental health literacy.”

At the college level, conferences and universities are prioritizing overall health by placing mental well-being on an equal footing with traditional medical support provided to physical injuries, embracing the concept that health-related conditions mental illness should be treated with the same attention and care. like a torn ACL or a concussion.

Concerns about mental well-being have gripped college athletics in recent weeks after three female student-athletes died by suicide, according to statements from family members and local coroners’ offices.

Stanford football player and team captain Katie Meyer, 22, died on March 1. Wisconsin track athlete Sarah Shulze, 21, died April 13. , 20 years old, be by suicide.

“We have to make it something that’s okay to talk about, that it’s okay to be able to talk about it without any kind of stigma or without any kind of judgment,” said Dr. James Borchers, chief medical officer for the Big Ten and co -founder and chairman of the American Athlete Health Council, USA TODAY Sports said.

“Institutions are studying this, not just with athletes, but with students in general. In athletics, it’s becoming a much more recognized need for athletes who participate.”

Shortly after being hired in 2019, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren established the league’s Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet with the goal of “creating and maintaining the mental health and well-being in college athletics,” he said at the time.

Last November, the Big Ten joined with the ACC and the Pac-12 to create an initiative, Teammates for Mental Health, designed to educate coaches and student-athletes about the signs that an individual may have mental health issues.

In terms of creating a public dialogue, these steps and similar programs established at the individual university level have brought the issue back into the mainstream after a long period of neglect on topics such as anxiety, depression and balance. sport-school for student-athletes.

“I think in the past, if you go back 20 years and we thought about athlete health and safety, we focused a lot on physical health and safety,” Borchers said. “But it’s an area that has definitely become a point of attention and a concern, whereas in the past it could have been second, third, fourth or even further down the line.”

Mental health experts in select athletics departments

Reflecting efforts in place at the broader student body level, many athletic departments have hired mental health professionals and dedicated resources to establish programs designed to address the theme of general wellness.

Such a program at Texas Tech puts this conversation in three buckets. The first establishes a model for integrating primary care into more traditional health services, ensuring that every coach, team doctor or specialist provider who comes into contact with Red Raiders student-athletes is working from the same treatment plans.

The second covers sports psychology, addressing the ways in which student-athletes can weather the ups and downs of competition and schoolwork through heightened emotional intelligence. The third involves organizational psychology, or how individuals in a larger group can work together to achieve common goals.

Stanford Cardinal goalie Katie Meyer (19) takes a goal kick against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half of the College Cup Championship game at Avaya Stadium.

AFTER: Katie Meyer felt “stressed to be perfect”. Many student-athletes tell.

“Our goal, and we repeat this time and time again, is to create a sustainable, healthy and high-performance environment, truly understanding that well-being is the foundation of performance,” said Associate Athletic Director Dr. Tyler Bradstreet and school principal. Director of Clinical and Sports Psychology.

“What’s important is that it goes beyond just providing mental health treatment services on an individual level and actually understanding all the different things that really go into mental health and well-being. -to be of a person.”

“It is quite clear that there is a need”

Additionally, nonprofits have filled a void on campuses by connecting directly with student-athletes. A group, Morgan’s Message, was created in 2020 to honor Morgan Rodgers, a Duke lacrosse player who died by suicide in 2019, and has more than 800 “ambassadors” at 168 high schools and 226 college campuses spanning 35 states, Washington, D.C. , and two Canadian provinces.

“For a lot of us, we don’t want anybody else to lose their Morgan,” said co-founder Kat Zempolich, one of Rodgers’ former teammates. “There’s such a stigma around mental health, which I think has been the biggest hill to climb. It’s pretty clear there’s a need.”

In addition to broadening the conversation around mental health struggles, the organization’s message touches on the concept of self-esteem – the sense of one’s own intrinsic worth beyond external achievements and successes.

“What we try to preach as a band is that your value doesn’t come from the things you do,” Zempolich said. “Your value isn’t based on how many goals you put in the back of the net or how many minutes you spend on the pitch. It’s not based on getting an A, a B, from a C. You’re valued just being a human being, just being who you are.”

Whether it comes from an athletics department or an outside organization, every student-athlete mental wellness program aims to address any potential issues. In some cases, this may involve an athlete struggling with the end of their playing career or balancing schoolwork and teamwork; in others, normalizing conversations about mental health can serve as a lifeline for a student-athlete struggling with suicidal thoughts.

“The more we do this, the more our teams do it, the more our coaches feel confident talking about these things, the more athletes see their teammates talking to us, the more they see us talking to their coaches – it just becomes part of the process. said Bradstreet.

“We have to act around this,” Borchers said. “When I say action, I mean proactive action, not always reactive action. And look, it’s like anything else. We have to do our best to prepare.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of the day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free confidential 24/7 support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.

James Madison wide receiver Lauren Bernett during an NCAA softball game on May 28, 2021.

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