Mental health: athletes’ hidden opponent

Halie Mariano, Contributing Writer

In modern athletics, the hype around health seems to be all about concussions. Skeptics ask, are they really a big deal? Are there long-term consequences? Can they kill you? The answer to all three questions is yes, so you’d think one of the NCAA’s main safety concerns would be head injuries.

What happened to the focus on mental health? Is a mental condition any less deserving of attention than a physical injury? You could ask the same three concussion-related questions in regards to depression and anxiety. The answers are still yes.

In 2013, Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, declared mental health as one of the NCAA’s top health and safety concerns. In an era where the focus lies in athletes’ physical ability, recognizing the mental side of athletics was a major step. But where’s the real change?

Virginia Tech is one university ahead of the game. A collaborative effort by the university administration, athletic department, and sports medicine team created two positions for sports psychologists, along with several other initiatives. Both psychologists are former athletes, adding to their credibility on the subject of athletes’ mental health. However, Virginia Tech’s programs came in the wake of major mental health incidents involving athletes.

Daniel Eisenberg, an Associate Professor of Health Management at the University of Michigan, says 33 percent of college students experience symptoms of mental health conditions. Of that group, 30 percent seek help. However, of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10 percent do. This illustrates the “whatever it takes” mindset athletes prioritize in order to reach their goals – no matter the obstacles.

Every so often, news headlines announce the death of a student-athlete – many times from suicide. This past January, police found Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Because Hilinski was known by teammates as “one of the most outgoing kids on the team,” no one saw it coming. That is precisely the problem.

While universities around the nation claim to prioritize mental health, many question whether that translates into reality. Despite counseling and student development improvements, athletes continue to isolate themselves. In the case of the late Madison Holleran, a former student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, even seeking help left her feeling misunderstood. Holleran’s story, described in the book “What Made Maddy Run” as the attempt to “live up to expectations,” illustrates the high pressure, high stress environment that not all athletes are able to handle with ease.

On the University’s campus, for some, the walk to the Counseling and Student Development Center (CSDC) feels like the other side of the world. At an institution where one in five students is an inter-collegiate athlete, one must recognize the difficulty associated with feeling weak when traits such as strength and perseverance are valued most.

So, here’s what I’m asking for: on behalf of myself, my teammates, and all other athletes, we need deeper integration of the Athletic Department and the CSDC. We need greater awareness; we need to start conversations; and more so, we need to place the same emphasis on mental health that we do on sexual harassment and binge drinking.

Implementing a “report a friend” campaign, wellness visits, or an “early signaling program” could change the scope of mental health at the University. Regardless of the approach, we need outright support from coaches, administrators, and students. Prioritizing mental health should not be a response, but rather a proactive institutional change.

In today’s culture, it’s difficult to speak out, but no one is in this alone – even though it might feel like it. The question now is: how can we make change together? There is no simple fix, but I find the consequence of losing an athlete, friend, or teammate too large to ignore.

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