Group of student athletes on campus discussing mental health
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Teaming up to strengthen mental health resources for student athletes on campus, now, for tomorrow

Within the last month

Agile, energetic, driven, confident and tough.

These terms are often used to describe student athletes. It is perceived that these terms are the qualities that lead to athletic performance and success. Too frequently, discussion lacks about the immense pressure placed upon student athletes to always be agile, energetic, driven, confident and tough, and the potential toll that pressure takes. Sadly, the combustible pressure on student athletes to manage all these characteristics has resulted in five student athletes committing suicide within the last month. That is five families, five teams and five institutions all grieving the loss of agile, energetic, driven, confident and tough athletes. It’s time to change the discussion.

Student athlete concerns

College is not the starting point for this pressure placed on student athletes but is often the perfect storm for mental health crises. From the beginning, athletes are taught to have a practice makes perfect attitude and, “if you apply yourself, you will master your sport with great achievements.” When a student athlete enters college, there are additional concerns that can continuously strain that individual. For most athletes, college is the highest level of play that they will reach. These athletes also have the added stress of being a full-time student. Mental health concerns, fears and worries vary by athlete, but commonly include:

  • Achieving perfectionism and needing to “suck it up”
  • Academic and athletic responsibility
  • Team goals and initiatives
  • Career-ending stage: “What is my purpose after sports?” and “Who am I without my sport?”
  • Social media pressures
  • Name, image, and likeness (NIL) demands

Ultimately, institutions want student athletes to be successful and aim to provide resources to manage the stresses of athletic and academic commitments, but some students still encounter barriers.

The barriers

Rachel Joy Baribeau, the founder of I’m Changing The Narrative, a movement with the mission to promote positive mental health, has experience at over 50 campuses throughout the country, bringing purpose to student athletes, coaches and administration, to break barriers. Rachel notes from conversations with students and personal experience that stress can mount, where a bunch of the “little things” occur within a student’s life all come together at once and it can feel like too much to handle.

Student athletes consistently share with Rachel three reasons why they don’t ask for help. Whether true or not, this is what they believe in their head:

  1. I don’t want to be seen as weak.
  2. I don’t want to lose playing time.
  3. I don’t want to lose my scholarship.

A 2019 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine also cites negative attitudes towards help-seeking amongst athletes compared to the general population, fear of the consequences or repercussions and lack of time as reasons student athletes do not discuss their mental health. Because of these things, many athletes are reticent to ask for help, even with world-class resources on hand. What good are the top resources if students will not use them? In Rachel’s opinion, “we must begin to hold hands, even more so, on campuses across the country. That includes administrators, mental health professionals and coaches asking for help, tapping every resource available to normalize everyday discourse on mental health.”

Today, more than ever, that also includes having mental health professionals and resources that reflect diversity both in gender and ethnicity.

Further, student athletes have reported that at various institutions, once they ask, there is a considerable waiting time to receive help. One athlete reported being on a month-long wait. Considering the current mental health crisis taking place in higher education, institutions must take a more intentional approach to prioritizing serving their student athletes’ mental health needs in the timeliest way possible.

Rachel is consistently told by student athletes that they often don’t feel like their coaches care about them. They feel like a number, a commodity. And oftentimes, the “open-door policy; we are a family” commitment rings hollow. Student athletes need to know that their coaches truly, genuinely care about them as human beings and that they care about their mental health. They want to be checked on for no reason, encouraged, believed in and shown grace.

Breaking barriers

To make the progress towards breaking the barriers, some institutions and athletic conferences are:

  • Aiming to treat mental health and physical injuries equally (e.g., providing red-shirt years and individual accommodations)
  • Hiring outsourced mental health experts, like Rachel, to facilitate discussions and offer resourcing options specifically to student athletes
  • Facilitating student leadership groups to offer mentorship opportunities and empower students to fill the current resourcing gaps
  • Integrating care continuums and crisis teams to gain a clear understanding of resources
  • Employing mental health experts in athletic departments to offer one-on-one counseling and sports psychology services
  • Adopting institution-wide technology-driven approaches to predict and proactively intervene

Assess your institution

Institutions should ask themselves questions to begin to evaluate their current state of processes related to student athlete mental health. Does your institution have:

  • A culture that promotes equality between physical and mental health?
  • Resources specifically focused on the demands of collegiate athletics?
  • Strategic initiatives to end the stigma surrounding mental health?
  • Certified professionals to facilitate mental health assistance and support?
  • Coordinated support and warning frameworks to ensure a holistic view of the students?

Baker Tilly can help

Baker Tilly can help your institution take a proactive approach to identify opportunities and get all students (and especially athletes) the help they need more quickly. We do so by evaluating the current state of your integrated approaches and the rigor and efficacy of policies and processes related to student athlete mental health. Our collaboration with you can identify opportunities to enhance the student mental health response across the campus community.

Baker Tilly helps institutions evaluate policies and procedures related to student athlete mental health

For more information, or to learn how Baker Tilly's higher education team can help your institution manage and/or enhance its student athlete mental health resources, contact our team.

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