For decades, university athletic departments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on student-athletes, focusing primarily on their physical and academic well-being. but according to the NCAA a third and arguably more important piece to success is forgotten: the mental health of student-athletes.
“I was walking through the Varsity Center and I was thinking about how we have every resource we could possibly need, ranging from academics to physical, but nothing that acknowledges mental health,” said senior business and psychology major Sadi Henderson, current student-athlete. “The amount of stress college students in general are exposed to, and then on top of that being student-athletes, I wondered where our outlet was.”
Boise State has started taking steps to improve its mental health resources.
“We have recently hired our first full time mental health professional for the athletic department,” said Marc Paul, Assitant Athletic Director/ Sports Medicine. “Stephanie Donaldson, who is a former collegiate swimmer at Pepperdine University, will start this week and be mainly responsible for educating on mental health practices.”
The addition of Donaldson will work in collaboration with the Health Center and their New Director of Counseling Services, Matt Niece, another former collegiate athlete. This investestment highlights the commitment to the well-being of all student’s mental health at Boise State.
“Regular student or student-athlete, mental health is important,” Paul said. “The more education we can get on the subject, the better off we will be.”
In November 2013, the NCAA assigned a task force to research and understand the mental health issues that student-athletes face. In March 2016, they released a list of their findings in a guide titled “Mind, Body, Sport,” which provides universities with information on the best ways to support the mental health of student-athletes.
These practices are beginning to become implemented more around the country, but there still is a long way to go, both in the understanding of mental health with student-athletes and the best practices of support.
“Student-athletes are under a very big spotlight,” Paul said.“Like regular students they under the eyes of the peers, professors and parents, but unlike regular students, they are also under the eyes of the Idaho Statesman, ESPN, and hundreds of Boise State fans.”
The NCAA states that “Student-athlete mental well-being is best served through a collaborative process of engaging the full complement of available campus and community resources, which may include athletics, campus health, counseling services, disability services and community agencies.”
Student-athletes battle with the day to day issues related to the stress levels that come with being a college athlete. They are often taught to tough it out or suck it up. With small issues, this mentality will work, but bigger ones like anxiety or depression need professional help.
Currently at Boise State, student-athletes are out-sourced to counselors or psychologists at the University Health Center.
“The Health Center is already overbooked, which means we need a qualified mental health professional in the athletic facilities,” Henderson said. “Student-athletes can’t wait two months to see a counselor. Our demanding schedules require things to happen a little quicker.”
An important change would be the hiring of an on-campus, full time mental health professional, located in the athletic facilities. The NCAA recommends this “an important way to increase the practitioner’s visibility and accessibility.” “Having a mental health professional on site will help with anonymity for student-athletes,” Paul said. “By making the mental health professional visible and comfortable with the student-athletes, it will make going to see him or her less of a big deal, which will allow student-athletes to be more willing to face the issues.”
One of the biggest challenges facing mental health is breaking the stigma surrounding mental health practices. “The biggest problem is the stigma,” Henderson said. “Some people don’t understand how important mental health is to the well-being and success of student-athletes, making it hard to invest resources into it.”
Heading to go see a counselor or a psychologist has a stigma around it that keeps people away. People who see counselors or psychologists are often times viewed as having serious mental issues, when that is not always the case.
“The best way to break the stigma is starting the conversation,” Paul said. “By talking about mental health, we can break the stereotypes associated with it.”