Mental health and student-athletes

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Shortly after the Rio Olympics, ESPN published an article detailing United States eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt’s struggle with depression. The article emphasized the post-Olympic activity crash, but noted other factors as well, including a general negative attitude about seeking help among student-athletes.

One of the most interesting pieces of information in the article was that Schmitt was actually in college when she first experienced depression, after the 2012 Olympics. Given the Mental Health Awareness Project currently in progress at the University of Dallas, it seems appropriate to discuss the issue of mental health as it relates to college athletics.

It turns out that mental health is a big problem in college sports. There have been several prominent suicides by student athletes in recent years, including an Ohio State football player and a University of Pennsylvania runner in 2014.

In fact Dr. Brian Hainline, the chief medical officer of the NCAA, thinks that it is the most important health issue for the NCAA. Although student-athletes have a lower rate of reported mental health problems than other students, they face unique difficulties that normal students do not.

For example, there is believed to be a greater stigma concerning athletes with mental health problems because of the expectation for athletes to be “mentally tough.” When combined with other abnormal stresses — such as travel, attendance policies and injuries — that student-athletes face, mental health can pose a significant danger to student athletes.

One of the results of this greater stigma, and one of the dangers pursuant to it, is that student-athletes are known to be less likely to seek help than their non-athlete peers. A lack of mental health literacy and previous negative experiences are also believed to play a role in athletes’ silence.

These risks can be significantly increased by injuries, particularly major sports-related injuries. This is because sports often provide rigid structure to athletes’ lives, so being significantly injured for a long period of time can disrupt the student’s schedule and organization.

An article by the director of athletic medicine at Princeton University reviewing the effects of injury on athletes’ psyche, was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and on the NCAA website in late 2015.

“In a review of five collegiate athletes who completed suicide, common factors included (1) considerable success before injury, (2) serious injury requiring surgery (3) long rehabilitation with restriction from play (4) inability to return to the prior level of play and (5) being replaced in their position by a teammate,” according to the article. “Of these the greatest predictor was the severity of injury.”

The article also mentions a correlation between symptoms of depression and alcoholism in student athletes.

The article’s recommendations are focused on raising awareness of mental health because a lack of information is one of the biggest difficulties facing student-athletes with mental health problems. They believe that increased awareness of mental health will lead to normalization of mental health problems, reducing the stigma.

In my first article, I addressed what seem to be difficulties with life as a student-athlete at UD. In some ways, many of these difficulties are just more extreme versions of the difficulties that most students face. So, during the Mental Health Awareness Project, which focuses on raising awareness of mental illness at UD, it seems appropriate to mention the parallel problem of mental health among student-athletes.

 

Have any comments, questions or suggestions for our columnist? Please contact Joseph Roth at jroth@udallas.edu.

 

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