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Introducing Dr. Laura K. Jones: Pioneering Mental Health in College Athletics

Welcome to our latest feature on The Zone, where we spotlight leaders making strides in mental health within the sports community. Today, we’re thrilled to introduce Dr. Laura K. Jones, an associate professor at UNC Asheville and a trailblazer in integrating mental health resources into college athletics.

Q: What’s your name and where are you from?

Laura K. Jones: My name is Laura K. Jones. Originally I’m from South Carolina, but I’ve had the opportunity to live all over the US, which has been exciting.

Q: How long have you been at UNC Asheville? What is your role there, and what did you do before?

Laura K. Jones: I have been at UNC Asheville for nine years, as an associate professor in Health Sciences and faculty in Neuroscience. In addition to my faculty role, I began working with our Bulldog Athletics program eight years ago, as the Mental Health Coordinator and most recently the NCAA Health Care Administrator.  In my work with athletics, I serve as a liaison to help connect individuals (student-athletes, coaches, and staff) to needed mental health resources; consult with coaches and our sports medicine team around athletes in need and team dynamics; work with teams individually; conduct trainings for our entire department; network with campus, community, and technology partners to enhance resources and support for our athletes; supervise a peer athlete mental health ambassador program; run a peak performance biofeedback lab; and conduct research, grant writing, and outreach to help build external awareness and support for our mental health and holistic wellbeing programs for athletics. However, I do not provide direct clinical support to our student-athletes. I trust and rely on our network of clinical staff on-campus, off-campus, and through our technology partner to support their clinical needs once we ensure they get connected. By maintaining that boundary, I am able to more effectively oversee all aspects of our programming.

My background is in mental health, public health, and neuroscience, so prior to UNC Asheville, I held a number of varied positions. I was a faculty member and clinical supervisor in a clinical mental health counseling and counselor education program, worked in student affairs and university counseling centers, managed public health and public policy initiatives related to mental health and substance use, and managed brain imaging research labs. I see my strength, though, as being able to build and evaluate programs supportive of mental health and holistic health from a very systemic framework, and it has been really fun to use skills from all of my past positions in my work with athletics. 

Q: Is there anything specific about UNC Asheville that you would like others to know?

Laura K. Jones: We are a smaller, Division I AAA program (just under 300 athletes), which means that we are a very close and collaborative team and know all of our athletes personally, both in and out of their sport. However, this also means that our resources are more limited than schools in a Power 5/Power 4 conference. Some people see this as a limitation, but we see it as an opportunity to get creative and think outside of the box when it comes to effectively supporting our athletes’ holistic wellbeing and success in all areas. Everyone in our department is fully committed to our student-athletes and to the department – our student-athletes come first, no task is too small for anyone, everyone is willing to learn, collaborations are the norm, and camaraderie is high. Our culture of wellbeing and support permeates all that we do. Being a faculty member as well, I have the privilege of seeing our athletes both in and out of the classroom. The small size of our university allows for close collaborations across campus (between students and faculty, across departments, etc), and my position is a great example of that. There are only a few models across the country, in any NCAA division, of athletic departments collaborating so closely with faculty. It is a win-win situation, and that collaboration is a strength of our department and university.

Q: What is unique about working in college athletics? What has been the most impactful way another support staff role has supported your position? Can you provide a specific example?

Laura K. Jones: I absolutely love working with collegiate athletes and working in an athletics program in general. Coming from academia, it is a very different but complementary environment. Everything that I am teaching in the classroom, I am directly implementing and applying in Athletics. Athletics has an energy, pace, and drive to it that is infectious. I am surrounded by people who want to win in every area of their lives, which means they are driven to learn, grow, and shift at a pretty fast pace and will do what is needed to help their teams and this department as a whole to be leaders and champions. Something that is unique about working with our athletes and this department specifically is how open and welcoming they have always been to me and to integrating mental health into all that we do. I started this work after student-athletes in my classes kept asking me to talk about mental health in Athletics. From day one, Athletic Director Cone was on board, and this was well before the NCAA started suggesting that Athletics departments address mental health. She is innovative in every way and is able to see the trajectory of NCAA athletics well before others. Honestly, her unwavering support and trust have been the most impactful. There are many other smaller examples that occur on a daily basis of staff and coaches supporting my work for which I am incredibly grateful – our former Sports Medicine Physician asking me to collaborate with him in building a holistic wellbeing plan the very first year I was working in Athletics; our coaches choosing to reach out and ask me to meet with their teams and to consult on various situations; our Associate AD for Internal Ops’s eagerness to collaborate on events for our athletes who are historically underrepresented in mental health care; one of our AT’s asking me to collaborate on an innovative initiative for male athletes; and just staff and coaches beginning to reach out to access support for themselves – but honestly it all starts with Janet Cone being a champion of this work.

Q: How do you advocate for yourself in an isolated role?

Laura K. Jones: Honestly, building strong, trusting, and respectful relationships is how I am able to do all of what I do, including advocating for myself. When I first started this work, my primary goal was 2-fold: help connect athletes with needed support and build trust with the coaches and staff. That trust develops buy-in. I wanted our coaches to know that I wasn't telling them how they needed to coach but giving them tools to integrate into their own winning coaching styles - that they can be tough coaches and still support their athletes’ mental health. I wanted everyone to understand that in supporting our athletes, part of my job was also to make their work easier and more effective. Now, due to the collaborative nature of our department and my close work with our Health and Counseling Center, I don’t really feel isolated in my work or role. Everyone is on the same page and understands (and has experienced) the need for and importance of this work, so I no longer feel like I need to advocate for myself. Currently we are exploring how to expand the program, and that involves advocating for the needs of the entire program to our larger university and community partners (and grant funders) rather than advocating for myself specifically.

Q: What would you say is the hardest part about supporting an entire college athletic program? And what would you advise other peers in your position who are solo providers in athletics?

Laura K. Jones: Although the work, at times, can be a lot emotionally and a lot to juggle, the work itself is not hard. I love what I do, which makes it very enjoyable. What is challenging sometimes is seeing the many different ways we could continue growing if we had additional people on the mental health team. We have developed an impressive program with the resources that we have, and I am always looking forward in terms of how we can continue to expand this program. I want us to stay on the cutting edge of this work and be a model for DIAAA and DII programs. Doing these roles on top of my faculty responsibilities is a lot, though, and as much as I wish we could do it all, there are very natural limits to time and ability. So, we are starting to explore possibilities of how to continue expanding our mental health budget and staff in creative and sustainable ways. That goes back to building strong, trusting partnerships, collaborating with campus, community, conference, and technology partners, and bringing in grant funding.

Q: How have technology systems such as The Zone and MindFlow helped you enhance your job?

Laura K. Jones: Working with The Zone and MindFlow have been game changers for us in terms of the resources we are able to provide our athletes. The technology allows us to meet this new generation of athletes where they are. They were raised on technology, so it only makes sense to provide some sort of technology to help meet their needs. With The Zone, they have resources and tools to build self-awareness and resilience literally at their fingertips. It breaks down that barrier of our athletes needing to even reach out to me to get support. It also provides a one-stop-shop for all of our mental health resources. They can connect not only to resources and tools, but they can connect to me or any of our other support staff at the click of a button. The Zone’s willingness to work with MindFlow to create an integrated platform also means that our athletes can directly and easily access MindFlow, our direct services technology. For those that may not be familiar, MindFlow provides live, online mental health and sports psychology services by licensed providers. Given that

they work with contract therapists, of diverse identities and sports, all across the country, some of whom work nights and weekends, their providers are able to accommodate the time-constraints of our athletes, which through our annual evaluation, has been one of the biggest barriers to our athletes reaching out for support when they need it.

However, we are very selective when it comes to the companies with whom we collaborate. We want to work with companies that were developed and are run by former athletes, who know the stressor and the triumphs of being an athlete. We want to work with ethical companies whose main goals are not money or mining our athletes’ data but truly supporting our athletes. Lastly, we want to work with companies that prioritize relationships and work with us to meet our needs. We could not have chosen two better companies. I am thrilled to be able to support them and have their support in return. At the end of the day, it always comes back to relationships and collaborations.

Q: What is something about this role that has surprised you?

Laura K. Jones: Honestly, how much I would love it. I did not work with athletes prior to coming to UNC Asheville. At first, I was worried that would be a barrier to me being effective in this role, but it has actually been an asset. I can look at things from an entirely different perspective and use that to help us imagine a different way of doing things. So, what I was not anticipating is just how exciting it would be to work in this environment.

Q: What do you wish athletes knew about your work that they currently don't?

Laura K. Jones: How much they inspire me. I do this work for them. Since day one, this program has been informed by their voices, and I would not have it any other way. We all do this work for them. I am endlessly inspired by all they do and how well they do it. They balance more than most adults. It’s impressive. I think they know this next one, as they hear it from me all the time, but I just want them to always remember that they are not alone – not in their struggles and not in trying to navigate them. They are pillars of toughness in their sport, but the minute they leave the court, field, track, pool, course, etc they are human beings who will inevitably face myriad stressors, and they are not alone in those or in getting support to work through them.

Q: How do you prioritize your well-being?

Laura K. Jones: I do my best to do all of the usual self-care things – exercising, prioritizing sleep, eating healthy foods, getting outside - but I also make sure I am finding opportunities to connect with others, and just have fun and laugh every day, in or out of work. One of the quotes I always share with my athletes comes from Mat Fraser, a 5-time CrossFit games champion. He said that the most dangerous competitor is the one who’s having fun. I think that holds true for every area of life. As a clinician by training, one other thing that I find helpful is that I have my own counselor. In my opinion, anyone working in the mental health field can benefit from having their own therapist. It is a lot to take on and hold the emotional load of others. Even though I do not do the direct clinical work, I am hearing and feeling their stories on a daily basis. I also just want to model that practice for everyone in my department.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Laura K. Jones is not just an advocate for mental health; she’s a visionary integrating innovative solutions to support the holistic well-being of college athletes. Her work at UNC Asheville is a testament to the power of creativity, collaboration, and a relentless commitment to student-athletes. At The Zone, we are proud to feature leaders like Dr. Jones who are making a profound impact in the world of sports and mental health. Stay tuned for more inspiring stories and insights from trailblazers in the field.



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