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The mental health crisis in higher education was simmering long before the shutdown, isolation, and dramatic changes that occurred during the early days of COVID-19. However, the pandemic fanned the flame and flared up major mental health concerns for college athletes. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), rates of reported mental health concerns among college athletes have increased by 1.5-2x since 2020. The cries for student-athlete mental health support grew louder after college student-athlete suicide rates reached a record high in 2022, drawing national media coverage.
Despite the increased attention and resources being directed toward addressing the elevated rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety, symptoms of depression, substance use, and other stressors, little progress has been made to reduce these numbers. Research from the NCAA shows a continued prevalence of mental health concerns among college student-athletes.
- Mental health disorders among student-athletes remain highest among female athletes
- Student-athletes of color continue to face a disproportionate burden of mental distress
- LGBTQ+ student-athletes are at a higher risk of mental health problems
- Those reporting family economic hardship are disproportionately affected
Let’s take a closer look at the barriers to mental health care in college sports and solutions to overcome these challenges. By helping address mental health issues, higher education can help college athletes receive the potentially lifesaving care and support they need to succeed on and off the field.
Barriers student-athletes face to seeking care
No one challenges an athlete’s decision to rest after a fractured ankle or broken wrist. Those injuries are obvious, and treatment almost always requires a break from participation in the sport. But what happens when athletes need to care for their mental health?
Although depression and anxiety are not visible on an X-ray, these concerns can be just as restricting or devastating to a student-athlete’s physical health and performance as a broken bone or strained muscle. However, these difficulties are often neglected for the sake of a student-athlete’s “mental toughness.” Not only that, but college athletes also encounter other roadblocks to acknowledging mental health concerns and accessing mental health therapy:
- Traveling away from campus: Many college athletes, particularly elite athletes, travel frequently for games and competitions, making it difficult for them to see a therapist, counselor, or sport psychologist in their local area.
- Stigma: Despite the increasing awareness and acceptance of prioritizing mental health, there is still a stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health concerns, especially in the athletic community. Only 47% of student-athletes reported feeling comfortable personally seeking support from a mental health provider.
- Lack of virtual resources: Although virtual therapy has become more widely available in recent years, access to these resources can be limited for college athletes who may not have access to technology or may not be familiar with how to use these types of resources.
- Limited time: College athletes have demanding schedules that include practices, games, and training sessions, leaving them little time to schedule and attend appointments with mental health professionals.
- Cost and insurance coverage: Mental health care can be expensive and many college athletes may not have insurance that covers the cost of therapy.
- Lack of confidentiality: College athletes may be hesitant to seek help for fear that their mental health issues will become public knowledge, which could have negative consequences for their athletic careers.
- Lack of awareness and education: College athletes may not understand the importance of mental health or may not know where to find resources and support. The NCAA’s study found that approximately 1 in 3 student-athletes reported not knowing where to go on campus for mental health resources.
These barriers make it challenging for college athletes to access the mental health care they need to succeed both on and off the field. Addressing these issues and increasing the availability of mental health resources for college athletes is critical to helping them lead healthy and successful lives.
How to create a culture of caring for student-athletes
Colleges and universities have a significant role to play in addressing the barriers to mental health care that student-athletes face and in creating a culture that prioritizes their well-being. John MacPhee is a former student-athlete and is now CEO of The Jed Foundation (JED), a nonprofit focused on protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for teens and young adults. He offers the following three initiatives to support the mental health and well-being of student-athletes.
1. Prioritize diversity among athletic staff
Colleges and universities should prioritize hiring staff that represents the diversity of both their general student and student-athlete populations. Despite the diversity among student-athletes, many may not feel represented by the athletic leadership, as the majority of head coaches and athletic directors are white males. To effectively address mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, racism, homophobia, eating disorders, and sexism, students need accessible mentors that they feel comfortable turning to when they need support. Women, LGBTQ+ students, and students of color are the most likely student-athlete groups to report mental health concerns, making it crucial for coaches and athletic staff to serve as role models and create a welcoming environment.
2. Promote mental health resources available to student-athletes
Athletic leadership (e.g., directors, coaches, athletic trainers, and athletic administrators) should prioritize athlete mental health by openly discussing mental health and promoting the use of available resources. Mental health assessments can also be implemented to detect student-athletes who may be struggling and need encouragement to seek care. To establish comprehensive mental well-being support strategies for student-athletes, counseling center and athletic directors must coordinate to have an open line of communication about the needs of student-athletes and the resources available to them.
3. Proactively eliminate stigma and barriers to mental health care for student-athletes
Additionally, athletic departments should take proactive steps to eliminate stigma and barriers to student-athletes seeking help. Coaches and athletic staff can play a crucial role in this by promoting the importance of utilizing available in-person and virtual mental health resources to monitor emotional well-being and address the challenges student-athletes face. Unfortunately, only half of student-athletes believe their athletics department is prioritizing mental health. Colleges can create a positive shift by making mental health resources easily accessible to students, enabling them to succeed in their personal, athletic, and academic pursuits.
No young adult should have to face the challenges of being a student-athlete alone. That’s why it’s essential for higher education to provide the necessary mental health support for student-athletes before they start to feel isolated, alone, and possibly compelled to leave their sport or the school altogether. By creating supportive communities and resources, colleges and universities can help student-athletes thrive.
As a result of the increased mental health challenges due to COVID-19, 80% of coaches across all three NCAA divisions reported spending more time discussing mental health with student-athletes. While this increase is welcome news, it also highlights that coaches need support too. This is precisely why TimelyCare is doing more to provide virtual care for college personnel in addition to students. Health care delivered remotely via technology can enhance the accessibility of mental health support for athletic personnel and student-athletes, as well as faculty, staff, and the general college student population.
Support student-athletes when they need it most
How virtual care can help student-athletes overcome barriers to care
Virtual emotional and mental health care, such as the services provided by TimelyCare, can also help institutions meet the NCAA’s guidelines for mental health by providing accessible, confidential, and secure support for student-athletes. The guidelines emphasize the importance of providing resources and support for student-athlete mental health, including access to mental health screenings, referrals, counseling services, and ongoing care. Virtual care addresses those requirements in the following ways:
- Accessibility: Virtual care offers remote access to mental health services, eliminating physical barriers such as location and transportation. This makes it easier for student-athletes to access care and seek help when needed, regardless of their demanding athletic training and academic schedules.
- Convenience: By offering care online, virtual providers can provide care at a time and place that suits the student-athletes, allowing them to engage with healthcare providers in a confidential and secure environment.
- Stigma reduction: By making mental health services more accessible and convenient, virtual care can help to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health support. Schools should strive to normalize mental health support and resources by making them commonplace and available for students to seek help when needed.
- Peer support resources: The NCAA’s study found that more than half (56%) of student-athletes reported knowing how to help a teammate experiencing a mental health issue. And 63% of student-athletes felt their teammates take the mental health concerns of other teammates seriously. Another study discovered that student-athletes with increased social support were less likely to report symptoms of depression. When a peer understands the seriousness of a mental health issue and can help guide a person to care, the likelihood of that person’s health and well-being improving increases. Much like increasing access to care, peer support can also help reduce the stigma of seeking care. Virtual platforms, such as TimelyCare, can provide resources to connect to peers to validate experiences in a safe, secure environment.
- Integration with on-campus counseling centers: Improved collaboration between athletic departments and counseling centers is crucial for implementing comprehensive plans to support student-athlete mental health. By working together, virtual care providers, such as TimelyCare, and college counseling centers can ensure continuity of care for student-athletes, whether they receive mental health counseling in-person with a campus counselor or online with a virtual provider.
- Providing care for coaches and staff: Providing higher levels of support for coaches and staff is crucial in creating a culture of mental health support. In addition to providing care for the student population, strategic virtual care partners can also provide care for coaches and staff, enabling them to focus on their own mental health needs and provide better support for their athletes.
By partnering with a virtual care provider like TimelyCare, colleges and universities can integrate mental health services into their athletic departments in ways that help meet the NCAA’s mental health guidelines. With 24/7, equitable access to care, athletes, coaches, and staff can promote a culture of help-seeking behavior and mental health support.
One practical example of meeting the NCAA’s mental health best practice guidelines for student-athlete mental health can be seen through TimelyCare’s partnership with Morehead State University—a member of the Ohio Valley Conference and NCAA Division I athletics. The virtual care platform provides convenient and accessible mental health support for student-athletes at the university. With the ability to provide care from anywhere and at any time, TimelyCare helps to remove the physical barriers and stigma associated with seeking mental health support through 24/7, on-demand and appointment-based support, self-care tools, and peer support resources. This partnership exemplifies how schools can ensure that their student-athletes have access to high-quality, secure care when and where they need it.
Virtual care can remove barriers to mental healthcare, enabling student-athletes the opportunity to reach their full potential in both their academic and athletic performances. Contact TimelyCare to learn how mental and physical telehealth for your academic community can make a difference in the mental wellness of student-athletes and non-athletes alike.