While concussions, knee injuries and other physical ailments draw a lot of attention when it comes to college athletes, some experts are now going on record to say that it is the mental health of college athletes that should be of greater concern. Special pressures exist for student athletes that make them increasingly likely to suffer with mental health issues, they say, including being in the spotlight both on campus and nationally, immense fear of injury, and regularly missing family gatherings and holiday celebrations due to participation in their chosen sport. Student athletes may be particularly prone to struggles with depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
Recently accumulated data reportedly reveals that slightly more than one out of every five teens and young adults is suffering from some kind of mental health issue that could be addressed by a physician, counselor or other professional. It is likely that the number of young adult student athletes who could benefit from from mental health services is similar, making the mental health of college athletes a much greater concern than the physical problems such as concussions that seem to get the bulk of the attention of experts and the media. In fact, it has been reported that the third leading cause of death among college athletes in recent years is suicide, falling behind only accidents and cardiovascular incidents.
The Chief Medical Officer for the NCAA, Brian Hainline, has reportedly said that “[mental health] is a serious issue.” He has also suggested that education of athletes, coaches, staff, parents and friends of the athletes in recognizing the importance of reporting mental health concerns and seeking assistance promptly is needed. Training those working with athletes about what they should be on the look out for may also help. Hainline believes that it will take widespread effort and commitment to remove the stigma of admitting to struggling with mental health issues and seeking help. He is also responsible for forming the first NCAA Mental Health Task Force last fall and the group has been working on updating information to be distributed to college athletes and those working with them in the spring. Some participants with the task force are hopeful that in the future athletic departments may employ mental health professionals specifically to work with the unique problems that student athletes face.
NCAA athletes are able to request a medical waiver for both mental and physical illnesses and some professionals say that they are seeing a significant increase in the number of waivers issued as a result of mental health conditions. These waivers allow students to maintain their scholarships even while they are unable to participate in their chosen sport, thus theoretically avoiding the problem of students being fearful of reporting mental health concerns and losing their financial support and ability to attend school.
Organizations involved with student athletes including the NCAA and the National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) are slowly but surely bringing more attention to the issue of mental health problems, but the general public is largely absent from these discussions and the stigma of mental health struggles remains. Experts say that getting society at large to realize that mental health issues are of great concern for college athletes is also a key part of making widespread changes.
By Michele Wessel