Mental Health in Student Athletes

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Mental Health Issues With Student-Athletes At The Collegiate Level

Written by: Jon Hoynak, MS, LAT,ATC

As an athletic trainer, I mostly see athletic related injuries that range from contusions to concussions to ACL tears. What a lot of people don’t see after an injury occurs is how the student-athlete handles the mental stress of dealing with an injury. Some injuries can keep athletes out for a day, week, month or a full season. When an athlete suffers an injury there can be a lot of thoughts racing through their brain such as: “I don’t want the coach to be mad at me”, “I can’t miss a practice/game, I’ve never been hurt” or “I don’t feel like I am a part of the team anymore”. All of these type of thoughts are grouped into what is called a student-athletes mental health.  Mental health issues can be triggered by more than just an athletic injury; they can be caused by the stress of being at a new place away from home, having to attend and do well in class, “physical demands of training and competition, the time commitment to their sport, having difficulty interacting with teammates and coaches and struggling with poor sports performance”. The main focus of this article is to begin to enlighten student-athletes and all coaching staff members of mental health issues, signs and symptoms of mental health issues and ways to seek help.

As stated previously, mental health issues can be triggered by many events such as; an injury suffered causing the student athlete to miss competition for either a short or long period of time, having trouble getting along with teammates/coaches, struggling in class or a life event going on at home. As an athletic trainer I see my athletes every day and get to know them very well. I have the ability to tell when they are having a good day, bad day or they just may seem a bit off. The student athletes also see me every day and they can also tell if I am in a good mood or bad mood. As a member of the athletic department staff “we have the trust of the student-athlete and we are someone that the student-athlete can turn to in difficult times or personal crisis”.  As an athletic trainer or teammate it is important to recognize when someone is not acting like their normal self. It is important to not joke about the issues they are dealing with or act like it isn’t a big deal. If a teammate or a friend is talking about a tough time they are going through, it is important to listen and encourage them to talk to a mental health professional. Below are a list of changes of behavior in someone who may be suffering from a mental health issue (“the behaviors in the following list are not all-inclusive, may be singular or multiple in nature, and may be subtle in appearance”).

  • “Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • Gambling issues
  • Withdrawing from social contact
  • Decreased interest in activities that have been enjoyable, or taking up risky behavior
  • Talking about death, dying or “going away”
  • Loss of emotion, or sudden changes of emotion within a short period of time
  • Problems concentrating, focusing or remembering
  • Frequent complaints of fatigue, illness or being injured that prevent participation
  • Unexplained wounds or deliberate self-harm
  • Becoming irritable or problems managing anger”

Once some of this changes in behavior become noticeable the next step is seeking help. As an athletic trainer, coach, teammate or athletic department staff member it is important to “encourage student-athletes, or give them permission to seek help from a mental health provider and that they can help them gain insight into their situation. Encourage athletes that seeking counseling is a sign of strength, not weakness and it can be very useful”. Here at Neumann University we have a Counseling Center for Wellness. It is located at 60 3B Covent Road Aston, PA. They are open Monday-Friday from 8:00 am to 5:00pm. Anyone is more than welcome to walk in or make an appointment. They do their best to schedule an appointment within 24 hours of calling. If a student-athlete wants to seek help but is too afraid to walk over or call on their own, any of the athletic training staff members are more than happy to assist the student-athlete. Another option other than the counseling center here at Neumann is finding a sport psychologist to talk to. “A sport psychologist can mean one of two things-someone who is licensed to practice psychology and can diagnose and treat mental health problems with a special emphasis on athletes, or someone trained to apply mental preparation techniques to athletes with an understanding of how physiological processes relate to performance”. These licensed mental health professionals can enhance the medical care for student-athletes by:

  • “Providing mental health screening and prevention education
  • Conducting pre-participation evaluation screenings
  • Providing continuing care for concussion management
  • Managing eating disorders
  • Providing counseling on challenges and stresses related to being a student-athlete
  • Resolving conflict between athlete and coach and athlete and athlete.
  • Serving as a key member of the athletics department catastrophic-incident team”

Lastly, stated below are some self-help strategies that my help with some mental health issues:

  • “Reduce or eliminate the use of alcohol and drugs
  • Break large tasks into smaller ones; set realistic goals
  • Engage in regular, mild exercise
  • Eat regular and nutritious meals
  • Participate in activities that typically make you feel better
  • Let family, friends and coaches help you
  • Increase positive or optimistic thinking
  • Engage in regular and adequate sleep habits”

The athletic trainers and coaching staff are here to help and we want nothing but the best for all of our student athletes. Student-athletes are encouraged to talk to someone they trust and to seek counseling from a licensed mental health professional. It is important to note that “most individuals who suffer from depression will fully recover to lead productive lives”.

NCAA Handbook 2014-2015. Pg: 82-87.
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