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Sport and Competition

College Student-Athletes Are Dying in Mental Health Crisis

A call for change.

Key points

  • College student-athlete suicide is at a record high.
  • College athletes are mirrors for the environments created by coaches/staff.
  • An athletics culture change is needed to keep athletes safe.
Source: whoislimos/Unsplash
Source: whoislimos/Unsplash

College athletes have always had distinct mental health needs. Student-athletes are likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse–but they often do not seek help. This sets up a huge problem where athletes are expected to perform at a high level but mentally suffer in silence.

In 2022, at least four college student-athletes died by suicide. All were high-achieving, high-performing student-athletes who seemed to be doing well to the knowledge of everyone around them. Their deaths left communities wondering, "Why?"

One answer is clear, which is that athletics departments (ADs) and affiliated staff have a responsibility to foster cultures of mental wellness rather than athletic excellence alone.

Attempts at Change

Athletics departments have come a long way over the past decade. Many ADs have sports psychologists on staff or affiliated therapists in counseling centers. These mental health professionals work with dietitians, physicians, strength coaches, physical therapists, and athletic trainers to provide comprehensive care to student-athletes. Undoubtedly, the athletic staff is working hard to increase mental health awareness and keep athletes safe. But it's not enough.

The institutional structure of athletics itself is not built for wellness. Athletes who want to play at the college level are often asked to commit to institutions as early as age 14. Once in college, athletes are put through rigorous training and travel schedules while adjusting to classes and new relationships with peers, coaches, professors, and staff. Institutions profit off athlete effort in exchange for a diploma–a diploma representative of a college education with diminishing value. The pressure to achieve profits and wins outweighs any efforts for well-rounded health.

The "win-at-all-costs" culture and rigid expectations are also felt by staff. Athletics departments are notorious for rapid staff turnover and high levels of burnout. Many positions are filled and refilled each year. By the time student-athletes build a relationship with a trusted adult, that professional could be gone the next season.

These institutional structures pose real barriers to culture change. The future is not hopeless - athletic departments can take certain action steps that emphasize athlete well-being - but it will require radical steps.

This Is How We Change the Culture

Although mental health awareness is important, awareness without substantial programming cannot be expected to make a meaningful impact on athletes' mental health. Data on the percentage of NCAA budgets dedicated to mental health-related expenses are not readily available, but it is unlikely that mental health-related spending is a top priority in current budgets.

Athletics departments must dedicate significant resources (funding, time, energy) to the mental wellness of athletes. That means multiple positions for wellness staff and adequate compensation for those positions. It also means funding for wellness programs that both directly benefit athletes and reduce/eliminate waiting times for services. These services could include individual and group therapy programs, team performance meetings, social gatherings, and small group discussions. Wellness programs should be diverse in offerings and times for ease of access.

It is also vital to create a mentally healthy environment where athletes feel safe. For example, it's not enough to provide cursory "check-ins" with athletes. Coaches and staff must create an environment where athletes feel safe to truly be honest about how they are doing, even when it is not well.

Check-in often. Let athletes know that it is okay (possible and even positive) to feel all emotions, even when emotions are unpleasant. Normalize how common it is to struggle. Validate that college, especially college athletics, is hard to navigate. Emphasize that vulnerability is a shared human experience. Making mistakes improves performance in the long run (and can even make us more likable).

Do not minimize or make fun of sickness or injury. Do not encourage athletes to push through physical or mental health concerns. Do not promote the idea that you must be "hurt enough" or "sick enough" to miss athletic functions or that you have to "earn" rest. Avoid promoting the idea that athletes "fake" or maximize injuries. It's important that you avoid not only these comments towards your athletes/staff but other athletes/staff as well. Regardless of the intended target, athletes will hear comments (even if directed at others) and internalize those messages. College athletes are mirrors of the environments that coaches and staff create.

Instead, emphasize high effort with ample time for rest and recovery (both physical and mental). Teach athletes to actively rest - i.e., actively engage in wellness activities that improve well-being, like enjoyable activities, rather than passive resting (sleep, zoning out). Make rest a vital and non-negotiable part of training and optimal performance. Amplify and encourage athletes' interests outside of sports.

A Call to Action

Student-athlete suicide rates have skyrocketed amid a national mental health crisis among adolescents and young adults. While there have been efforts to increase mental wellness in college athletics, much more must be done. Athletic departments must actively combat institutional barriers like a win-at-all-cost mentality and prioritizing profits over people. Athletes can only flourish on and off the field when these systems become dismantled. Athletes cannot afford to wait.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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