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  • Writer's pictureSydney Baxter

Invisible Injuries: Recognizing the Need for Student-Athlete Mental Health Awareness

Updated: Jan 17

**Trigger Warning**

This piece discusses suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it disturbing.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Lifeline provides confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Support is also available via live chat. Para ayuda en español, llame al 988.


Watching Villanova Basketball star Justin Moore tear his Achilles in the Elite Eight round of the 2022 March Madness Tournament was gut-wrenching with the Final Four Game approaching and his crucial role as a leader on the team.[1] Moore slipped with just seconds left in the game and the athletic training staff pronounced that he would be out indefinitely - a fate no athlete wants to face.[2] However, fast forward almost six months, and Moore is on the road to recovery with high expectations for his return in the 2023 season.[3]


Physical injuries, like Moore’s, are often visible to the naked eye and are accompanied by a well thought-out and a thoroughly communicated plan to assist the athlete in the rehabilitation process.[4] But what happens when fans, coaches, and teammates cannot see the injuries? What happens when injuries are mental rather than physical? What is the road to rehabilitation for the student-athletes suffering from these invisible injuries? The answers are unclear.


As National Suicide Prevention Month draws to a close, student-athletes across the nation are gearing up to face daunting mental hurdles for the remaining months of their academic and athletic year. Student-athletes are a unique subgroup of college students who devote hours to mental focus in the classroom followed by hours of physical and mental pressure on the field, with little time in their schedules to allocate to self-care and relaxation.[5] Although the NCAA technically caps the time a student-athlete can spend on athletics at 20 hours per week, that number doesn’t accurately reflect the entirety of the necessary activities that athletes must partake in, including travel for games and physical therapy.[6] This demanding schedule can unfortunately become a recipe for severe mental struggles, and the team environment often deters those struggling athletes from speaking up.[7]


Despite student-athletes representing the pinnacle of physical health, hard work, and discipline, athletes are 2% more likely to experience severe mental illness than their non-athlete counterparts.[8] Additionally, a NCAA study conducted in 2021 found that 30% of the athletes reported feeling extremely overwhelmed and 25% felt mentally exhausted.[9] A National College Health Assessment also found that approximately 48% of female and 31% of male NCAA student-athletes reported symptoms of depression or anxiety.[10] Of the student-athletes reporting mental health problems, only 10% are reaching out for help.[11] The statistics are increasingly alarming considering multiple tragic cases involving suicide among student-athletes within the past year.


In March of 2022, Stanford soccer goalkeeper and team captain, Katie Meyer, died by suicide.[12] Meyer led her team to a NCAA Division I championship in 2019 and was described as a “beloved, talented and respected Stanford student athlete.”[13] In the two months following Meyer’s death, four more NCAA athletes died by suicide, with three of them being young women.[14] A 2015 study found that suicide was the fourth leading cause of death among student-athletes[15], and the number of student-athlete suicides in the first four months of 2022 is higher than the rate has ever been in recent years.[16] These devastating losses have led to outcries and anger towards the NCAA’s system that is “inherently harmful to college athletes’ mental health.”[17]


Athlete activists highlight that the NCAA’s business model and the safety of the athletes are “fundamentally opposed to one another.”[18] Each year, the NCAA’s revenue increases, and more money within the system equates to more pressure on coaches to produce winning seasons and more pressure on athletes to consistently perform at their peak levels.[19]


Additionally, the introduction of name, image, and likeness (NIL) into the equation has only increased the pressure placed on athletes and increased the concern over their mental health.[20] Although NIL broadened the rights of student-athletes by expanding their ability to benefit financially through various endorsements, this new responsibility can lead to an equal expansion in mental health issues. Endorsement deals, which are largely carried out through social media, may provide student-athletes with some financial benefits, but it is highly likely that this influencer marketing model will force the athletes to devote what is left of their already demanding schedules to contractual concerns and social media performance. [21] The NCAA’s focus surrounding NIL is currently placed on rule violations, but a greater emphasis should be directed toward the impact on student-athlete well-being.[22] So, what can the NCAA do to help?


The NCAA requires its member schools to provide some form of mental health services to their athletes.[23] More specifically, the Sport Science Institute, a group that works with the NCAA and the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports to provide athletes with a premier environment for safety and wellness, provides educational resources and “best practices and tools” to offer schools a model of care for their athletes’ mental health.[24]


The best practices include:

  • Providing a licensed individual to provide mental health support;

  • Writing emergency and non-emergency plans for scenarios when an athlete faces a mental health challenge;

  • Mental health screening prior to the athlete’s participation in the sport; and

  • Educating members of the student-athlete community to create a “culture that promotes care seeking and mental well-being and resilience.”[25]

Despite the availability of these resources and their noble intentions, many student-athletes are hesitant to access these resources or are entirely unaware of their existence.[26] Even with access to resources, there is little hope for improved mental health when athletes are viewed as commodities rather than people.[27]


With millions spent on athletic training facilities each year to assist in recruiting new athletes and training current athletes to reach their peak performance, why not approach the structuring of mental health facilities that with the same mindset? Until athletes can access mental health resources with the same ease and confidence that they walk into the weight room, there is still work to be done by the NCAA and its member institutions.



References:

[1] Jeff Borzello. Villanova Wildcats guard Justin Moore tore Achilles, to undergo surgery. (27 Mar. 2022). https://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/33611020/villanova-wildcats-guard-justin-moore-tore-achilles-undergo-surgery

[2] Id.

[3] Mike Jensen. Villanova guard Justin Moore just heard some magic words from his doctor. (20 Jul. 2022).https://www.inquirer.com/college-sports/villanova/justin-moore-vilanova-achilles-tear-progress-20220720.html

[4] Jeff Borzello, supra.

[5] Molly Hensley-Clancy. Reeling from suicides, college athletes press NCAA: ‘This is a crisis’. (19 May. 2022). https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2022/05/19/college-athletes-suicide-mental-health/ [6] Id.

[7] Bill Squadron. As NIL Grabs Headlines, NCAA Athletes Urge More Mental Health Aid. (1 Jul. 2021). https://www.sportico.com/personalities/executives/2021/ncaa-athletes-priority-mental-health-1234633156/

[8]Lauren McQuade. College Student-Athlete Health and Well-being. (30 Aug. 2021). https://timely.md/blog/student-athlete-mental-health/

[10] Id.

[11] Bill Squadron, supra.

[12] Molly Hensley-Clancy, supra.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Lauren M. Morris, et al. Student-Athletes: An exploration of subjective wellbeing. https://thesportjournal.org/article/student-athletes-an-exploration-of-subjective-wellbeing/

[16] Molly Hensley-Clancy, supra.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Pat Coyle. Social Media, NIL Demands Can Take Toll on College Athlete Mental Health. (27 Apr. 2022). https://www.sportico.com/leagues/college-sports/2022/social-media-nil-demands-hurt-mental-health-1234673562/

[21] Id.

[22] Tim Daniels. NCAA D-1 Council to Review How NIL Policy Has Affected Student-Athletes. (18 Feb. 2022). https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10027433-ncaa-d-i-council-to-review-how-nil-policy-has-affected-student-athletes

[25] NCAA Sport Science Institute. Mental Health Best Practices. https://ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com/ssi/mental/SSI_MentalHealthBestPractices.pdf

[26] Lauren M. Morris, et al, supra.

[27] Molly Hensley-Clancy, supra.

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