Student-athletes and mental health

A recent survey shows NCAA student athletes’ elevated rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and feelings of being depressed have seen little change since 2020.

By Ashley Graham and Pulse Staff

While physical health has always been a concern for athletes, mental health issues have become particularly relevant since the start of the pandemic.

A survey conducted by the NCAA of 9,800 student athletes in November 2021 found student-athletes continue to report elevated levels of mental health concerns.

University of Findlay Athletic Director Jim Givens says mental health concerns are definitely real.

“People are starting to become more and more aware that it is,” Givens said.

Givens says the UF Athletic Department is talking more about mental health than ever before.

“We had a head coach’s meeting today (April 12), and we probably spent 15 to 20 minutes speaking to it,” Given said. “We had a full staff meeting last week and Dr. Fell was there and mental health was one of the talking points for her.”

In February the University announced it will implement a new virtual care system for students next year. A partnership with TimelyMD is expected to provide supplemental mental and medical health services for all fulltime undergraduate and graduate students, according to the University.

Givens says he thinks that will help with student care.

“We hope it makes a big difference for the very immediate future,” Given said. “Long term, obviously we would like to be able to provide more of a service.”

In April 2022, the Pulse released a special report regarding athletes’ mental health and talked with sports psychologist Dr. Chris Stankovich. He said the first priority is open communication about the topic. He also said college athletic departments need to consider investing in 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.”

For now, Givens says that is not an immediate plan.

“We’ve not done anything formal in terms of, you know, approaching Dr. Fell in regards to…add a position,” Givens said. “We have Fiona Hanks here in our office. She used to be our head athletic trainer. She’s now sports medicine for us as well. She does a lot of student wellbeing initiatives and mental health is very important to her.”

Givens said a sports psychologist would be amazing but its uncommon for schools the size of UF.

“Schools that are larger, they have them on staff,” Givens said. “But you know, at our level it would be very rare for schools to have somebody like that in their department.”

Kendra Bermosk, assistant director of Counseling Services at UF, has seen an overall increase in the use of the Counseling Center from students. The Bucher Center Counseling Services is a place for students to talk about their problems and also get help with mental health issues.

“Counseling Services has the ability to diagnose and treat all emotional or mental health issues, but we also work with other issues as well such as family and relationship issues,” said Bermosk via email.

Since Bucher Center is a counseling treatment center, Bermosk says information on who attends counseling is confidential, so they do not have specific information to share on how many or what percentage of students who use counseling services are student athletes.

One of the ways student athletes can seek help is through the counseling center. The option for student athletes to keep their issues private or shared with their coaches is up to them.

“Due to confidentiality we cannot share information with coaches or instructors or anyone else unless a student signs a Release of Information form,” said Bermosk. This means it is up to individual students if they would like the Counseling Services to work with their respective coaches about their mental health.

The new telehealth system will provide behavioral health consultations therapy consultations, psychiatry, and medical consultations.

The NCAA survey stated “two-thirds of student-athletes indicated knowing where to go on campus for mental health concerns, and a majority (56%) reported knowing how to help a teammate experiencing a mental health issue. However, fewer than half (47%) felt they would be comfortable personally seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.”

Samantha Rohrs, a UF freshman student-athlete that participates in track and field and cross country, is an all-year-around athlete.

“I am on the cross country, indoor, and outdoor track team,” said Rohrs via email. “The summer is our only ’off-season’ though we still have the training to do.”

Students like Rohrs do not ever really get a break from their sport. They are always on the go and never get a mental break from their sport.

UF freshman Suvi Hollenbach, a student-athlete who plays on the lacrosse team, has seen a difference in mental health outside of season and in season.

“In-season mental health is more stress and out-of-season mental health is more just exhausted,” said Hollenbach.

Hollenbach thinks more days off would help student-athletes get a mental break and regroup their mental health.

Rohrs says finding people to talk to about their feelings is difficult which can complicate things and make student athletes feel misunderstood and belittled.                       The same NCAA survey showed half of student-athletes believe that mental health is a priority to their athletics department.

Givens says UF athletics is aware of the stress for student athletes and hopes the new telehealth system will help with that issue.

“We have, many of our coaches are very concerned,” Givens said. “So I certainly hope that this helps us, even if it’s just a little, that’s a big help, actually.”

Many stressors impact student athletes’ mental health besides their sports. One of the major stressors is trying to get homework done while in season. Hollenbach says time management is key.

Madelyn Alexander, a junior at UF on the track and field team, says she would like to see some changes from professors.

“If something is due on the day of a meet, giving us at least an extra 12-24 hours is beyond helpful for our mental health,” said Alexander via email. She thinks this would allow student-athletes to focus on their sport and then excel at their school work.

Alexander has another tip as well.

“Find people to hold you accountable and to do your homework with,” said Alexander.

When student athletes are always on the go with their sport, so there is little time for personal time outside school and sports. Rohrs has learned to give herself personal time.

“Keep after-practice open for a time to either relax, hangout out with friends, or sleep,” Rohrs said.

Coming up Monday,  Bella Angel explores how professors individually respond to students’ mental health and how the University equips them to deal with it.