In the spring of 2022, at least five NCAA student-athletes died by suicide within a span of two months. Around the same time, Harry Miller, an offensive lineman at Ohio State medically retired from football due to concerns about his depression and experience with suicidal thoughts. Both events put a spotlight on the crisis of student-athlete mental health, a problem that has been festering in school sports teams for decades and that has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves.
When student-athletes are giving their all and demonstrating incredible physical strength and endurance in a game, it’s easy to forget that they might be dealing with internal pressures, struggles, and pain. Mental health has become a pressing concern for student-athletes and the people close to them, including parents, friends, and coaches. A growing number of athletes in high school and college have reported feeling anxious, hopeless, and isolated, putting their lives and long-term success at risk.
Whether you’re a student-athlete who is attempting to overcome a mental health disorder, a concerned family member, or a coach who wants to build a strong foundation for your players, it’s crucial that you understand the challenges that athletes face and know how to access appropriate support systems. These resources provide a comprehensive overview of the types of mental health challenges that affect student-athletes and the ways that they can seek help.
Statistics on Student-Athlete Mental Health
Mental health problems are much more pervasive for student-athletes than many people realize. Consider these statistics for college students in the United States:
- A survey conducted between 2021 and 2022 found that 44% of college students, including student-athletes, indicated that they experienced depression.
- The American College of Sports Medicine reports that around 30% of women and 25% of men who are student-athletes suffer from anxiety.
- According to a survey conducted by the NCAA, the rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety, and depression in student-athletes increased 1.5 times during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The NCAA survey also indicates that less than half of male and female student-athletes report that they feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.
These statistics underscore just how significant and urgent the need for mental health support for student-athletes has become.
Understanding the Impact of Mental Health on Student Athletes
College students who are involved in athletics often carry heavy burdens. They spend hours each week attending class, doing homework, training, traveling, and competing, leaving them with few opportunities to socialize or work. Student-athletes also spend a lot of time in the public eye, more so than most non-athletes, which adds an additional layer of scrutiny and stress.
With so many overlapping obligations and sources of pressure, these students are vulnerable to a variety of mental health issues, including:
- Mood disorders, such as depression
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Suicidal thoughts
Depending on their severity, these conditions can be extremely harmful and even life-threatening. They can also be cyclical. If a mental health problem causes a student to perform below their expectations, the resulting shame, embarrassment, and frustration can worsen their anxiety and depression.
Importance of Addressing Mental Health in Student Athletes
Students are unable to reach their athletic potential when they are struggling to overcome mental health issues, so it’s in the best interest of sports programs and athletic departments to prioritize the mental health of their players. More importantly, addressing mental health concerns in student-athletes helps protect them from negative outcomes that can have lifelong effects.
Potential consequences of untreated mental health disorders in student-athletes include:
- Making mistakes during competitions that result in injuries
- Lower academic achievement that can cause students to lose scholarships and make it impossible for them to continue their higher education
- Difficulties in their personal relationships
- Increased use of illegal or unhealthy substances
Student-athletes can often overcome even severe mental health disorders and go on to lead healthy and productive lives, but only if they receive adequate support, guidance, and treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of Mental Health Issues in Student Athletes
The signs of possible mental health disorders differ depending on the type of condition that might be affecting the student. Generally speaking, sudden behavioral or physical changes are a cause for concern, particularly if they disrupt a student’s routines or manifest in dangerous ways.
Student-athletes can self-monitor for mental health problems, but it’s also vital that the people around them are aware of the signs and symptoms to watch for, such as:
- Anger, rage, and irritability
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Lack of interest and motivation in things that were previously important
- Withdrawal from friends, teammates, and family members
- Changes in eating habits or sudden fluctuations in weight
- Visible signs of nervousness, such as shaking or sweating
Keep in mind that many of these signs can also point to other issues that students commonly encounter. For example, many college students don’t get enough sleep or like to stay up late and sleep in. Rather than getting alarmed by a single symptom, look for patterns of changes and uncharacteristic behaviors.
Tips and Resources for Student-Athlete Mental Health
Some student-athletes begin their sports careers with a pre-existing mental health condition, while others develop problems due to the overwhelming changes of attending a new school, living in an unfamiliar place, and trying to live up to the standards of multiple teachers, coaches, and advisors. No matter whether you’re a student who knows that you already have mental health concerns or if you are concerned about one emerging in the future, these tips can help you keep track of your mental health before it reaches a disruptive and dangerous crisis point:
- Establish a support network of family and friends and check in with them on a regular basis.
- Find a professional that you trust, such as a coach, trainer, or counselor, and reach out when you feel that you’re struggling.
- Make time for other things that are important to you, such as your social life and hobbies, outside of sports.
- If you find yourself focusing on a mistake that you made during a game, pause and make a list of things you did well and positive aspects of your life.
- Recognize that it’s normal to struggle and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.
Education is also essential for student-athletes who want to guard against mental health emergencies. To learn more about how to prevent and react to mental health conditions in yourself or people close to you, take a look at these valuable resources:
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): The ADAA’s webinar, “Managing Stress in Sports: Quieting the Mind and the Body,” explores strategies that student-athletes can use to reduce anxiety, stress, and negative thinking associated with sports.
- Athletes for Hope (AFH): Through the AFH mental health resource hub, student-athletes have access to therapy guides, suicide prevention training, and tips and tricks for improving mental health.
- Athletes Connected: This program offers videos, articles, and research studies to help student-athletes and their supporters better understand and navigate the challenges that sports can present to players’ mental health.
- Recognize to Recover: Although this organization is designed for soccer players, their mental health guide is useful for student-athletes in any sport.
Resources for Coaches Looking to Create a Supportive Environment for Student Athletes
Athletic coaches usually have a bigger part in students’ lives than just teaching them how to play a game. They become mentors, friends, and confidantes for their players, which places them in a unique position to create a safe and healthy environment that destigmatizes seeking help for mental health. These resources are a good place to begin planning and implementing a solid mental health program for student-athletes:
- NCAA Sport Science Institute: This site provides extensive fact sheets about student athletes’ mental health, as well as toolkits, education modules, and resources for athletic departments and coaches that want to better support their students.
- National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA): The NAIA’s website has a page dedicated to the mental health of student-athletes, including a mental health toolkit that coaches can customize with contact information for local resources.
- TrueSport: Through TrueSport’s mental health resources page, coaches and leaders in athletics departments can access downloadable resources, recorded presentations, videos, and articles related to the mental and emotional well-being of student-athletes.
- Eric Monday Foundation: This foundation offers a free training program that teaches coaches how to recognize and respond to signs that a student-athlete is experiencing difficulties with their mental health.
- Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health (CICMH): The CICMH offers a step-by-step guide and editable resources for athletics staff who want to improve the mental health of their players.
Resources for Seeking Professional Help
Most colleges and universities have on-campus counseling centers and mental health support groups, but many students don’t make use of them or need additional help from off-campus resources. A wide range of organizations are dedicated to promoting emotional and psychological well-being in students, including:
- The Jed Foundation: This organization offers mental health resources to teens and young adults who are experiencing problems such as anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts.
- Mental Health America (MHA): The MHA helps people coping with mental health concerns locate and reach out to treatment providers, offers crisis resources, and provides screening for mental health conditions.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP): Through the AFSP, people who have considered suicide or who are concerned about a loved one’s suicidal thoughts can learn more about crisis services and read stories of other people who have experienced the same feelings.
- Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression (AAAD): Student-athletes can access extensive resources, including videos and articles, and seek help from a qualified therapist through the AAAD website.
- Support for Sport: This site helps student-athletes learn more about possible mental health issues that they or their teammates may experience.
- Hope Happens Here: This student-run program is focused on eliminating the stigma of seeking mental health support on college campuses.
Mental Health Hotlines
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, it’s critical that you reach out for help as quickly as possible. These hotlines will connect you with trained counselors who can help you work through your emotions and make a plan to seek professional help:
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: With a national network of crisis centers, this hotline is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing distress or suicidal thoughts.
- Crisis Text Line: Students who are experiencing any kind of crisis, including mental health concerns, can text or chat with a Crisis Counselor.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: Volunteers at NAMI are available through text, chat email, and phone calls during weekdays and will help you make a plan to connect with a mental health professional.
- The Trevor Project: Counselors at The Trevor Project are trained to assist LGBTQ+ youth who are considering self-harm or suicide.
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline: If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can chat, text, or call the NEDA helpline for support and information about treatment options.