It was a freak accident.
As a freshman Division I gymnast at the University of California, Berkeley, I was living my dream of competing at the collegiate level. In just seconds, my gymnastics career came crashing down – literally – during a dismount from the bars. It’s a skill I had performed countless times before, but this time, I landed straight on my head, breaking T3 and T5 vertebrae and tearing a muscle in my neck. At just 17 years old, I was bedridden in my dorm room for 10 weeks.
This ordeal was not just physically challenging; it was a mental and emotional rollercoaster. In addition to struggling with the shock of a major injury, I was only six weeks into my college experience, navigating new challenges like adjusting to a new school, team, and coach while living away from my home and family.
Like other athletes, gymnasts are trained to push through pain, often competing through injury to maintain their competitive edge. Though I recovered physically from my injury and went on to be named “Rookie of the Year,” I was not prepared for the toll my traumatic injury took on my mental health.
My nights were haunted by recurring nightmares of my injury, and practices felt like an out-of-body experience. My heart would race uncontrollably, and I felt as if I were losing my grip on reality. What I didn’t know at the time was that my body was reacting to trauma. Instead, I masked my struggles, fearing that admitting them would mean losing my spot on the team.
The reality is that my brain took much longer to heal from my injury than my body, and that impact on my mental health went unmet, leading to my retirement as a collegiate gymnast during my sophomore year.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how different my experience might have been if I had access to telehealth services that could have connected me with a mental health professional right from my dorm. That would have been an invaluable use of my bedridden time.
I believe that my experience inspired my journey to help others with their mental health, ultimately leading me to TimelyCare where I support the development of clinical programs and our care team in changing the lives of students who struggle like I did.
Sharing is caring
While my injury story is personal, it certainly is not unique, particularly when it comes to the complex landscape of mental health among athletes.
Take, for instance, the story of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, which in many ways mirrors my own experience with mental health challenges. After a two-year hiatus to focus on her mental health, Biles not only made a remarkable comeback winning her sixth all-around world championship gold at the 2023 World Championships, and she has also become an outspoken advocate for athletic mental health. To quote Biles, “Put mental health first. If you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want.”
Recent survey data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) indicates that one in five college athletes have mental health conditions, and a 2022 NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study found the number of student-athletes reporting mental health concerns is one and a half to two times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Be it on the Olympic stage or at the collegiate level, it is imperative that athletes feel supported. Whether dealing with injuries, a mountain of performance pressures, or competing demands from athletic, academic, and social life, higher education and athletic organizations must double down on their strategy to support student-athletes’ mental health so they may see success on and off the field.
Suffering in silence: Recognizing stigma and providing resources
The number one step higher education can take is to recognize that the stigma associated with mental health is likely even more pronounced in the student-athlete population, and acknowledge that it will take extra effort to break it down, particularly among marginalized communities. In the meantime, offer student-athletes support and make sure they know what resources are available to help them.
Gifford Lindheim, the football coach at El Camino College – a TimelyCare partner school – says it can be challenging for his players to feel comfortable seeking help under the veil of masculinity.
“I work with a population that’s high testosterone, a lot of energy. They’re great guys, but it’s definitely a different culture. The culture is big, strong, tough guys who play a very physical game,” Lindheim said. “But behind that, they’re people and they have trauma just like the rest of us and they have things that they need to work through just like the rest of us.”
A recent NCAA-led survey found more than 80% of head, assistant, and associate coaches across all three divisions are spending more time discussing mental health with student-athletes than they did before the pandemic.
Lindheim commends professional athletes, like Biles, who are publicly admitting to and working through their struggles with mental health, as their vulnerability helps others not feel so alone. He encourages coaches and coaching staff to keep their eyes open for red flags – including a drop in attendance, changed body language, and verbal communication.
“Sometimes guys like to reach out through text, or sometimes they want to come in my office,” he said. “Sometimes they want to approach me after practice or sometimes it’s so overwhelming they can’t even talk about it. At that point, I’ve just got to keep digging until I can get them to talk about it so I can help them.”
Every so often, Lindheim says he’ll invite the college’s mental health service providers to a practice or football team gathering so the players can become familiar with them.
“I’ve had a number of students pull off to the side and tell me, ‘Coach, I’m on the phone with TimelyCare right now.’ Maybe they’re not able, transportation-wise or time-wise, to see someone in person, but they can get immediate help with something right then and there.”
How virtual health can support student-athletes
The second most important step for higher ed to support student-athlete mental health is to lean into one of their most powerful assets: motivation.
Student-athletes are among your most motivated individuals on campus. They know how to set goals and achieve them. While there may be an initial hurdle to break the stigma barrier, we know students want to feel better.
In many ways, Gen Z is leading the charge for change. A 2022 nationwide survey of more than 1,200 students found that 70% of student-athletes reported experiencing mental health issues, and they were more likely to seek emotional support (78%) than other students (71%).
Take Western Colorado University student Hayden Ell, for example.
Western Colorado University student-athlete Hayden Ells shares how TimelyCare is a place where he feels comfortable reaching out for help.
“It’s always just a feeling of a deep breath and a weight off my shoulders when I get done with a session,” said Ell, who competed on the WCU track team. “You just click on the TimelyCare app, talk, get whatever is on my chest out and then go about my day.”
Finding the time to seek mental health support is yet another challenge that can complicate a student athlete’s wellness journey, as their demanding academic, athletic and travel schedules can make it nearly impossible to schedule an in-person appointment when it suits their schedule. Introducing a virtual care solution enables them to connect with a provider at their convenience, no matter their schedule or location. With a teletherapy service like TimelyCare, students can access a licensed provider, wherever they happen to be.
In November, the Sun Belt Conference announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with TimelyCare to expand mental health care access to student-athletes across each of the conference’s campuses, including scheduled counseling, TalkNow, peer community and self-guided resources.
Take proactive measures to support the unique needs of student-athletes.
TimelyCare’s partnership with Morehead State University – a member of the Ohio Valley Conference and NCAA Division I athletics – demonstrates how individual universities can allocate resources specifically to support the success and overall well-being of their student-athletes.
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 best practices 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 by expanding accessibility, providing convenience, reducing stigma, connecting students to peer support services, by integrating with on-campus counseling centers, and providing care for coaches and staff.
With 24/7, equitable access to care, athletes, coaches, and staff can promote a culture of help-seeking behavior and mental health support. For coaches like Lindheim, a partnership with TimelyCare adds an extra boost of confidence when it comes to helping students find help.
“Having the ability to access TimelyCare has given me, as a head football coach, a tremendous tool,” he said. “I feel like I have another tool in my toolbelt to offer our players and our student-athletes in times of need. Our goal is to help them, not just as football players, but as people and as students.”
Virtual care can remove barriers to mental health care, enabling student-athletes the opportunity to reach their fullest 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.