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Mental Health in College Athletes

The alarm goes off at 4:30 am, it is time to get ready for lift. After lift is class all day,

then practice until 6 or later. Once practice is over, mandatory study hall and homework for the

rest of the night. Traveling throughout the week and getting back at odd hours of the night. This

is the life of a college athlete. These students are worked very hard physically and mentally.

Sports become their life but the issue with this is, sports will end eventually for everyone some

day and those students who do not know what do to without this rigorous practice schedule and

will suffer in the real world. Combine this with the statistics about mental health, especially in

young people and this poses a big issue, 41.6 percent of college students suffer from anxiety and

36.4 percent of students have depression (“Top 5 Mental Health Challenges Facing College

Students”). This number can be even greater since almost 40 percent of students do not seek help

about the situation. The added pressure of being a college athlete and maintaining the grades to

be able to play, impress their coaches, along with keeping their scholarship puts more stress on

these athletes. Mental health disorders have taken the lives of two many, especially college

athletes. This raises the question, to what extent can mental health in college athletes be

evaluated in order to protect the wellbeing and safety throughout their years in schooling and


There are a lot of resources for athletes already as defined in the contracts these athletes

have to sign when they commit to their schools along with what is set up by the NCAA. For

example, there are mental health clinics offered to the students but the only problem with this is

that the student has to take the initiative to get the help they need and a number of schools only

allow students to visit these facilities a few times per semester. The NCAA has placed a lot of

weight on the concussion issue and giving athletes full screenings after they have a head injury to
make sure there is no more damage. The Indiana Law Journal argues that this much pressure

should be put on the mental health and wellbeing of athletes. This paper opens up discussing just

a few cases of those who have lost their lives due to suicide and being a college athlete. The

NCAA however does not seem to take this issue as seriously, when asked if there should be

responsibility taken for the mental health of student-athletes, “Associate Director for the NCAA

Sport Science Institute Mary Wilfert said that ‘intervention cannot come out of the national

office’ because the NCAA is “not a medical organization” (Born). This is unacceptable because

there is the loss of human life over this issue, so it should be taken as seriously as a concussion

or any other injury. In another academic journal it was found that, “there are few, if any,

examples of specific programs that have been implemented to promote positive mental health

among student‐athletes. Not only should athletic programs have clear guidelines for referring

student‐athletes to highly qualified professionals, and a clear emergency plan for student‐athletes

who experience psychosis or suicidal feelings, they should also have programs in place that help

student‐athletes navigate their emotional health” (Ryan, et. al.). Nevertheless, positive mental

health thinking is on the right track because of the fact that getting those out of the hole first is

the most important step to becoming in the right frame of mind.

When it comes to mental illnesses, the number of those affected are larger than what one

might believe. One study that was completed on college athletes found that “the prevalence for

clinically relevant depressive symptoms in this college athlete population was 23.7%” (Wolanin,

et al.). This number equates to almost, one in four athletes having some sort of mental illness. In

terms of male versus female, 28.1% of females identified as having depressive symptoms and

17.5% of males. Looking into a smaller spectrum, it was even further investigated that female

track and field athletes were most prone to having depressive symptoms. This means that there
should be an extra emphasis on track and field athletes especially women. Where all athletes are

important there should be an extra focus on these athletes. Another problem facing these students

is the fact that substance abuse becomes prevalent in the sense that when those who suffer from

depression or anxiety sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope. Minorities are put

in an even tougher position, “the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) states that

among its core values are diversity/inclusion and gender equity among student-athletes, coaches,

and administrators, with suggestions provided to institutions about programming to promote

these values” (Kroshus and Davoren). Minorites can feel some sort of pressure as well because

they may not feel as included as their peers. These types of minorities can be in terms of race,

gender, and sexuality. Those who are different from their peers and do not feel as included can

suffer from loneliness and isolation. This can also lead them to increased substance abuse along

with problems defined with mental illness.

With all these issues at hand, there needs to be action taken in order to help these college

athletes. One author suggests the idea of social workers to help these students. This is because,

“like psychologists, social workers are trained to help treat depression through therapy or

antidepressants, yet graduate social work coursework and field placement experience also

prepare workers to help their consumers adapt to social settings and to cope with the unique

forces that characterize student-athlete socialization” (Gill). Social workers can help these

athletes get through their mental health issues along with plan for the future with helping them

set life goals and future plans. Every athlete should have a social worker assigned to them to

check up on them and help them through their struggles even if the athlete does not struggle with

mental health, but it will still be beneficial for them in the long run. This could be a little bit
costly because it would mean there would have to be enough social workers for all of the athletes

to share and have their one person to check up on them.

Another author discusses how the pressure is on the athletic trainers and other team

health care providers to watch for the warning signs when it comes to figuring out those

struggling with mental health illnesses. This article also said that it is important to keep injured

athletes in the loop. These athletes can suffer deep periods of depression because of not being

able to perform up to their best abilities. Another idea regarding mental health is “including

screening questions during the preparticipation examination and interim physicals performed at

the high school and college level that address mental health concerns is an opportunity to detect

issues early” (Putukain). Detecting signs early can help get the help that these athletes need

before heavy medication and other factors come in to play. Doing this in high school would be

the best option because of the fact that they are still children at that point and major depression

and anxiety seem to affect those in their young adult years more than that.

The last solution researched included the five cardinal mental skills method which states

one should use techniques like “relaxation, imagery, routines, self-talk, and concentration”

(Beauchemin). These techniques mean that it will not only help their mental health but overall

wellbeing. These are also things that the athletes can do on their own and not only with another

person. Relaxation being meditation, routines involved with getting up at the same time every

day, and concentration being focusing on the wider picture. With these strategies in mind, it can

affect their overall wellbeing and health before it gets to the point of needing medication and

extra measures taken.

In conclusion, mental health in college athletes is an immense issue. These students

suffer great consequences due to the extra added pressure of living up to their own standards as
well as their coaches. There can be a lot done to help these students though such as keeping an

eye on these students early in high school as well as when they start their college years,

providing social workers for each individual student, having trainers along with coaches keep a

special eye out on their players since they are with them for a number of hours throughout the

day, and telling them about the cardinal method which has been proved to help these students in

all situations. With that being said there are a lot of things that can be done in order to help these

students. The loss of a life should be worth the added money or extra measures to improve the

lives of these students. Mental health should be as important as injuries and should be taken

seriously in order to save the lives of these students who go the extra mile.

Works Cited

Beauchemin J. College student-athlete wellness: An integrative outreach model. College Student

Journal. 2014;48(2):268-280.
Born J. National protection of student-athlete mental health: The case for federal regulation over

the national collegiate athletic association. Indiana Law Journal. 2017;92(3):1221-1245.

Gill Jr. EL. Mental health in college athletics: It's time for social work to get in the game. Soc

Work. 2008;53(1):85-88.

Kroshus E, Davoren AK. Mental health and substance use of sexual minority college

athletes. Journal of American College Health. 2016;64(5):371-379. doi:


Putukian M. The psychological response to injury in student athletes: A narrative review with a

focus on mental health. Br J Sports Med. 2016;50(3):145-148. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-


Ryan H, Gayles JG, Bell L. Student-athletes and mental health experiences. New Directions for

Student Services. 2018;2018(163):67-79. doi: 10.1002/ss.20271.

“Top 5 Mental Health Challenges Facing College Students.” Best Colleges, 16 May 2018,

Wolanin A, Hong E, Marks D, Panchoo K, Gross M. Prevalence of clinically elevated depressive

symptoms in college athletes and differences by gender and sport. Br J Sports Med.

2016;50(3):167-171. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-095756.