Over the past decade or two, American colleges have witnessed a tremendous increase in the number of students requiring and seeking specialized mental health support on college campuses. The rise may be due to a greater openness among the current generation of students. Or it may be that students today experience higher levels of competition and stress than in prior decades. The exact cause is open for debate, but the data is clear: college counseling departments around the country are reporting high demand, long wait lists, and dissatisfaction among students who do not feel fully supported.
The crisis is particularly acute among student-athletes. College players have long been on the margins of care. Why? Like the pros, college athletes are often portrayed as superhuman. They are able to physically do what is unattainable for so many, and they are heavily recruited to attend some of the best educational institutions in the country. There is a widespread perception that athletes are physically and emotionally stronger than the average college student, leading college administrators and professors to believe that their athletes are the least of their concerns.
But athletes are people too. It is not uncommon for student-athletes to experience the same stressors that affect other college students. Factors commonly associated with mental health risks in college — such as being a student of color, experiencing college as a first-generation student, or struggling financially — affect everyone. And athletes’ college experiences are compounded by tremendous pressure to perform on the field, the court, or in whatever arena they were recruited to represent their school.
Real power dynamics within college sports may contribute to an unfortunate silence around mental health issues on sports teams. College athletes concerned about maximizing their playing time, living up to the expectations of friends and family, and possibly even trying to go pro, do not necessarily want to be perceived by peers and coaches as needing mental health support. They feel intense need to project an image of strength.
Of course, the pandemic did not help any of this. For athletes and non-athletes alike, college is supposed to be a time of dramatic development — a chance to foster new relationships, explore personal and professional aspects of their identities, discover career skills, and become immersed in new ideas and intellectual challenges. Of course, the pandemic drastically changed all that, rapidly altering the way young people were connecting, learning, and engaging. Suddenly, the schedules and social supports that normally help to limit anxiety and depression were halted. Although data is still being collected, considerable research is documenting that on college campuses, more students than ever experienced mental health issues for the first time during and after COVID, and those with existing mental health issues felt their symptoms exacerbated. Without a doubt, student-athletes are among those suffering from the COVID fallout.
There is a vocal community of professional mental health researchers who have been trying to raise awareness around the issue of student-athlete mental health for some time. However, as we have seen with other cultural movements, the most recent push has come from the community being directly impacted. Highly visible professional players in sports including tennis, skiing, basketball, football, gymnastics, running, swimming, and baseball have begun to talk about the pressure they face, their own histories with mental health, and the challenges they encounter when they are injured or after they retire. Think Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Mikaela Shiffrin, to name a few. Many of these athletes have spoken out about the absence of treatments or programs that “speak to them” and their experiences. More and more, we are now also hearing about college athletes who struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, and eating disorders. The most tragic stories end in suicide.
Within the wider field of mental health, there is a growing trend toward developing personalized approaches to prevention and care. Rather than assuming that everyone would benefit from laying on a couch for 45 minutes free-associating about dreams, there is now a strong move toward adapting mental health interventions that are more reflective of the diverse experiences and backgrounds of the people seeking treatment.
Colleges and universities would greatly benefit from the use of strategies that are tailored to individual students. But changing cultures on campuses is never fast. Some colleges are starting to convince donors and funders to make mental health a top priority. But it will take time to secure the resources to develop the right strategies to encourage students to speak up and to trust that the resources available will support them in the way they need. And while many schools have invested in expanding their counseling departments, most have not used their resources to reach out to athletes specifically.
While larger cultural practices continue to evolve, we can leverage some relatively simple, cost-effective methods to reach students and promote positive mental health among student-athletes. Colleges need to have a mental health system in place so that students know there is a care system they can access. If the system is too complicated, it won’t work. But just hiring one or two additional psychologists also isn’t enough. Our suggested approach for colleges looking to build support for athletes is four-fold:
First, colleges need to meet students where they are. College athletes, like all students these days, spend a lot of time on digital platforms. If students are getting their mental health information on social media, we need targeted strategies to connect with them in that space. The best way to do this is to invest in tools that function like the social media platforms to which they are accustomed. There are apps already well into development that aim to do this.
Second, we need to make it easy. Students are busy. They are stressed. They have a lot of digital information pulling at their attention. Colleges should invest in technology that will make it simple for students to find relevant information and support, and that is tailored to their interests, needs, and stress-management habits. Technologies such as The Zone app also track data, making it simpler for administrators to understand and meet a particular student population’s needs.
Third, we need to reduce and ultimately eliminate the stigma associated with seeking mental health. This is not going to happen overnight. Colleges should think about integrating mental health approaches into other services on campus. Let’s train athletic trainers, coaches, and others to be knowledgeable about recognizing and responding to distress in student-athletes. A student-athlete might come into the trainer or academic advisor's office about a grade but might ultimately share more personal concerns. We don’t need to turn advisors into therapists, but we can train them in Psychological First Aid and prepare them to recognize and respond to red flags.
Finally, let’s re-think what it means to coach. The traditional models of coaching focus on maximizing student performance. But student-athletes who transfer colleges report that toxic relationships with coaches are a leading reason for their moves. But coaches can motivate students in other, healthier ways. What if colleges could create communities of care in which our student-athletes were performing well and feeling well? What if we created a system that allowed them to thrive, develop healthily, and not burn out after four years? Of course, coaches need to be on board with these changes, and college administrators can help with that.
Colleges have a long history of investing huge sums in facilities and programs that maximize the performance of their athletes’ bodies. It’s time they started investing in athletes’ minds too.