Special Report: Invisible Injuries

Looking into UF’s mental health resources for student-athletes

Christensent@findlay.edu

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Concussions, broken bones, and life-altering injuries are no secret to a student-athlete. These types of injuries are very common occurrences, and it is normal to see an athlete bandaged up after a big game or a hard practice.

But what the eye cannot see also takes a toll on the performance and well-being of collegiate student athletes. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders experienced by many athletes also affect a large part of a college athletes’ life.  

According to Athletes for Hope, an organization aimed at educating athletes, being an athlete can result in pressures to perform in the game, as well as the rest of the student’s lives. Among professional athletes, 35% suffer from mental health conditions, that includes stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety.

Policies in place at The University of Findlay

 The University of Findlay is home to nearly 700 athletes, making up 19% of campus, meaning almost half of those athletes are struggling with some form of a mental health crisis.

Fiona Hanks, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at the University of Findlay, said that she has had many come forward concerned about their mental health.

In 2013, the NCAA came out with a document giving universities resources on how to promote and support student-athlete mental health. This document is titled as Interassociation Consensus Document: Mental Health Best Practices Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness. This is what UF used to create its own emergency action plan.

The University of Findlay’s mental health policy includes information regarding the protocol set in place for all student-athletes. It also gives coaches instruction on how to handle a mental health emergency. 

According to the document, “Upon arrival to campus, all incoming, transfer, and returning athletes will complete an annual mental health screening questionnaire as part of their pre-participation exam.”

This mental health screening questionnaire consists of seven questions. Seven questions to determine the mental wellbeing of a collegiate student-athlete.

Brandi Laurita, University of Findlay’s Athletic Director, said that UF also has tried to implement some open conversation about the topic as well as online training modules to educate staff, but she feels the department could always do more.

Aside from the annual mental health screening questionnaire conducted at the beginning of the school year, or what to do for an emergency, the school’s responsibility stops there. It is the job of the student-athlete to come forward if they need mental health assistance. That may be unlikely according to some studies.

In the past, Laurita said that a former student athlete had come up with some extra resources, such as group meetings, and other resources on the website, but those were never really well attended or utilized.

According to Athletes for Hope, out of the 33% of college students experiencing mental-health conditions, 30% seek help. But only 10% of college-athletes with mental-health conditions speak up about their circumstances.

Laurita said that the hardest obstacle to overcome for UF has been the lack of communication.

“The biggest thing we are trying to do is to allow the conversation without it being an awkward conversation, which seems really small, but it is a big barrier we have had,” Laurita said.

The policies at work

 Hanks said that the action plan has only been used a few times at UF since it was created.

“I have unfortunately gone through all levels, other than, thank goodness, I’ve never had someone successful in killing themselves at Findlay,” Hanks said. “I’ve recommended counseling for a lot of people.”

Laurita also believes the protocol set in place has given coaches a secure plan on what to do in the case of a mental health emergency. She also said that it has pushed them to think more openly towards mental health.

“We have majority of our staff, I’ll say 70%, who are trying to learn better ways to support student athletes with mental health,” Laurita said. “And we have some staff (and it is not because they are mean spirited or doing things on purpose but,) in their mind that wasn’t a thing.”

That small group that doesn’t understand is affected by their past knowledge on how an athlete is supposed to feel, and that now impacts their ability to acknowledge mental health, according to Laurita. She also said that the staff has had training to assist them in asking the tough questions regarding this topic.

When students do come forward to seek help from athletic trainers or coaches, Hanks said the students are directed to campus counseling, if the athletic training staff is unable to help them further.

Director of Counseling Services at UF Jodi Firsdon said in an email interview that UF’s Counseling Services provide consultation to the athletic department regarding student mental health, and if anyone in the athletic department is concerned, they can contact the counseling services to discuss the issue. 

UF provides campus counseling for all students, at no cost. The only downfall is that it can take weeks to get an appointment because of the high demand for counseling, according to Laurita

“Mental health is on the board of trustees’ agenda every meeting,” said Laurita. “Are we in a place where counseling services can support the needs of students, and I think it’s debatable, because sometimes it can take weeks to get students into counseling.”         

This factor has pushed some students to seek help elsewhere.

Gracie Glaser, 20, is on the UF swim team. She recently looked for counseling options and did not even consider the counseling services offered at UF.

“I’ve heard about other people’s experiences and it doesn’t seem like the best option,” said Glaser, “I also knew it would take forever to get an appointment.”

Glaser feels this way because of her past experience dealing with a school counselor.

“I feel like it would be less beneficial than going to an actual therapist,” Glaser said. “Since Findlay is a small school like my high school, and I had a bad experience with the counselor there, I have a negative outlook on it being connected to the school.”

Dr. Chris Stankovich is a sports psychologist located in the Columbus area and has written and co-written five books, as well as founded the Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center.

Stankovich believes that to successfully be able to help student-athletes, there first needs to be open communication about the topic, and possibly an investment into a sports psychologist to be added to the athletic department.

“To do it right means taking it seriously. It means investing into this pursuit properly,” Stankovich said. “Creating a staff, giving it office space, training the coaches, the athletic trainers, and everybody that is in the loop that this is a normal part of the four- or five-year experience for our student athletes.”

Firsdon has a different idea, bringing up the idea that UF does not necessarily need a sports psychologist, considering the counseling staff is trained for a broad spectrum of issues.

“Often times, sports psychologists have a limited scope of working on performance issues with athletes,” Firsdon said. “Where as a counselor is trained to work on the root of the issue that is affecting the student-athlete, which in turn can help improve performance.”

Stankovich says from his perspective, sports psychology does take the whole person into consideration.

“My colleagues and I who have studied in this field are all trained quite broadly,” said Stankovich, “With many of us seeing non-athlete clients during graduate school and at our private practices today—and for issues that go beyond athletics and sports.”

The implementation of a secure mental health resource has also been suggested by the NCAA. On the NCAA website, it states, “In immersed and comprehensive sport psychology program can enhance the prevention, intervention/counseling and care of student-athlete mental health/psychological issues.”

According to Stankovich, the “sport” part of psychology training is an applied part of training, meaning the clinicians are initially trained generally, then add on the applied experiences, such as sports.

The idea of a sports psychologist has not been completely eliminated from UF’s radar.

Laurita mentioned that it has been a topic of discussion, but there are some things they need to take into consideration before making that leap.

One obstacle preventing UF from hiring a sports psychologist is financial. 

“Yes, a sports psychologist is a great resource for student-athletes, and I think all schools would benefit from having one on staff,” said Hanks, “However, the biggest barrier to a school such as Findlay from having a sports psychologist on staff is financial.”

Hanks says that smaller schools have a harder time providing general counselors on staff for the entire student body, making having a specified sports psychologist less of a priority on campus. 

“Whilst money is not a great reason to not do something, in a small private school that is definitely our reality,” Hanks said.

In a Marquette Sports Law Review written by Marnae Mawdsley, A Losing Mentality: an Analysis of the Duty Owed By Universities to Provide their Student-Athletes with Mental Health Services, Mawdsley writes, “The NCAA acknowledges that institutions’ hesitation to implement these services likely stems from a lack of financial resources or understanding of the mental health crisis.”

“That excuse would not fly with me, this decision is based on integrity,” said Stankovich. “When it comes to college athletics, the decisions almost always begin and end with how much money they will make or lose, and I just think there is a certain integrity that needs to accompany college sports.”

But money is not the only thing preventing UF from hiring a sports psychologist.

“Investing in a sports psychologist is probably ineffective,” said Laurita. “Because of the amount of student athletes, one person is a drop in the bucket.”

Because UF has so many athletes, Laurita believes that adding one singular sports psychologist would not make the impact they would hope. She says working with counseling services to provide the services students need has been the best option.

            “It’s weighing priorities, and weighing impact,” said Laurita, “so that’s even a bigger barrier than the money.”

Laurita is also open to suggestions from students who feel like they would like to see more implemented at our school regarding mental health.

The effect on the student-athletes

 Gracie Glaser believes if mental health was discussed more on campus among coaches, athletes and athletic trainers, the school could begin to provide better resources for the athletes.

“As an athlete at Findlay…it’s a super important topic,” Glaser said, “(It) also would make me feel more comfortable coming forward if we did talk about it.”

Stankovich is passionate about trying to make mental health a normal topic of discussion, especially in sports. He believes that if this topic becomes a part of the norm, a change can be made for the better within universities. Stankovich thinks that more education about the various levels of stress and anxiety can push more student-athletes to come forward with their concerns

“What we still see too much of especially at the professional sports level, is that it is still presented as an abstract kind of thing,” Stankovich said.

Stankovich previously doing his graduate work in the athletic department at Ohio State University. He a lot of research regarding mental health in athletes and says that the athletes at that time had the same struggles, but there was more secrecy around that topic.

This can be seen at the University of Findlay as well, among athletes and coaches. Laurita sees most of the stigmatism in the coaches.

“There is a small group (of coaches) that doesn’t understand, and it is not that they don’t care about their athletes, it’s just that they didn’t talk about it.” said Laurita.

This can make it difficult for some students to feel comfortable coming forward with concerns according to Laurita, and it all depends on if the specific coach for that team is open to mental health communication.

Students like Xavier Marable, a senior on UF’s track team, thinks addressing the situation starts with open communication about mental health, much like Glaser. That’s something he feels is lacking considering he was unaware of the protocols at UF.

“I 100% wish that UF talked more about mental health and the policies they have in place,” Marable said. “Many people don’t want to ask other people about it because they may feel embarrassed, so if it’s public information people will feel better about going (for help).”

In the academic journal, Student-Athletes and Counseling Services: Recommendations for identifying and Developing Referral Sources, written by Rachel M. Daltry, Kristin E. Mehr, and Linsey Keenan, reports, “Mental health is viewed as contrary to the mental toughness expected of elite athletes.”

This can be seen within the coaches’ way of thinking. According to Laurita some of the coaches on staff grew up in a society in which mental health was ignored. Laurita said she too has experienced that in her college career.

“When I was a student athlete, it was not something that was discussed,” said Laurita, “I can’t think of a single person on my teams that talked about mental health or verbalized that they were struggling with something,”

According to the same journal, barriers to seek therapy are due to the stigma for seeking treatment, the fear of being viewed as weak, and fear of the student-athletes’ peers finding out about treatment.

Laurita said the number of students who do come forward to seek counseling depends on the team.

“Some teams are far more open about talking about it,” said Laurita. “There’s others that they are not having those conversations and they are not opening the door and saying it’s okay to go to counseling, they are just not talking about it.”

Dr. Stankovich believes that you cannot put a price on mental health. He also believes that by providing these mental health resources, it will result in the improvement of athletic departments as a whole.

“This might be a loss (financially), but to me this is the right thing to do, it’s what they need to do,” Stankovich said.

The implementation of mental health resources on a college campus can greatly improve the livelihood of a student-athlete, according to Stankovich, and this could also help improve the institution as a whole.

“I would argue that if you really integrate the mental health services and really integrate it into the services, (if you did that) you would have a healthier athlete,” said Stankovich. “And with that healthier athlete they would perform better, and in turn have a better athletic department.”

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