“With special populations, especially those who are particularly goal-oriented, particularly high achievers and particularly focused, there is still a sense of stigmatization, a sense of shame…One strategy for reaching out to athletes is to frame mental healthcare as a way to improve their performance in their sport.” (T.L. Schwenk, 2013)
Student-athletes are often subjected to a substantial amount of pressure, having to successfully balance their academic studies with their sporting commitments. This greater level of stress experienced by student-athletes may in part be due to the decreased amount of time that they are warranted to complete the increased responsibilities placed upon them.
An American study regarding student-athletes participating in the NCAA sanctioned intercollegiate athletic programs, found that of these student-athletes, between 10 and 15% (2% higher than their nonathletic counter parts) will experience psychological issues severe enough to warrant counselling (Watson & Kissinger, 2007). Student-athletes are also less likely to seek out professional help than non-athletes (Moulton, Molstad, & Turner, 1997). Reasons for this may include: fear of appearing weak, losing training time, losing the respect of peers and coaches and the fear of being seen as needing psychological assistance (Brooks & Bull, 1999).
It was also highlighted that student-athletes are at a greater risk than their non-athlete counter parts to experience mental health problems such as substance abuse (particularly alcohol) and social anxiety (Maniar, Chamberlain, & Moore, 2005), along with the estimation that between 10 and 20% of student-athletes suffer from depression (Gill, 2008).
In females, eating disorders were found in much higher rates for athletes than non-athletes with 8% of student-athletes suffering from bulimia and 1.5% suffering from anorexia; these rates are all comparatively higher than their non-athlete counterparts (Gill, 2008). These clinical psychological issues have the potential to be damaging to both the athlete’s academic work and their athletic endeavours (Hosick, 2005).
Why are Student-Athletes at risk of Mental Health Problems?
Student-athletes may be at an increased risk for mental health problems for a number of reasons including:
– Pressure to adhere to academic deadlines combined with excessive sporting commitment
– Their age increases risk for certain disorders, including eating and substance-related disorders
– University is a time of transition, where there are significant changes in one’s life, psychological disorders are often found to worsen during periods of transition or change
– Physical difficulties such as sleep problems and fatigue, aches and pains (including headaches), physical tension, and digestive problems
– Their identity may be strongly tied to being an athlete and they may find that their academic workload restricts them from training as much as they would like
– Additional stressors include, the potential of suffering serious injury, getting cut from the team or experiencing conflict with other team members or coaches
Signs that a Student-Athlete may be Experiencing Mental-Health Difficulties
- Changes in sleep patterns – may be constantly fatigued
- Not eating well
- Mood Swings
- Inexplicable under-performance
- Long stretches of apathy
- Decline in academic performance
- Social Isolation
A student-athlete’s mental health can be severely affected by injury. As it states in the NCAA handbook, “an athlete’s self-esteem and identity may be negatively affected by their inability to do the thing that they enjoy and do best”. Student-athletes can also become depressed as a result of “overtraining syndrome”. This can come about after heavy training, with symptoms including a decrease in performance, anxiety, muscle soreness, decreased concentration, fatigue and depression. Overtraining can place a student-athlete at significant risk of serious injury.
How Can Coaches and Sports Staff Help?
Coaches are often the front lines to athletes’ mental health. Therefore, it is helpful for coaches to have an understanding of the resources that are available to allow their athletes to reach their maximum potential in both their sporting and academic commitments.
Coaches/Sports Staff should:
- Maintain a strong relationship with the athlete
- Help reduce the stigma of mental health by talking about it and normalizing the need to take care of our minds
- Make sure mental health information is available when students arrive at university
- Add yearly education/prevention activities to your team/athletes season. This may consist of speakers for general as well as specific mental health topics (such as stress, study skills, depression, anxiety, eating concerns, or substance use)
What Can Athletes do?
- Focus (athletes should focus on one key priority at a time)
- Stress and depression have been found to be closely linked. With 94% of university students today saying that they are absolutely “overwhelmed”, as opposed to extensive multi-tasking, student-athletes should aim to focus on one goal at a time. They should determine their top priorities and focus on giving each one the time it deserves.
- Identity (construct an identity outside of sport)
- University athletes often derive their personal identity from their sport, focusing a lot of time on athletics. This has the potential to be beneficial to the athlete, leading to high performance, yet also the possibility of high levels of stress and depression.
- Time (help students maximise their time to include margins)
- One of the greatest sources of stress is the feeling of being out of control and overwhelmed by commitments. Students will often go on an elusive search for a “balanced life,” defined by perfectly inventing time in each priority equally, however, this ideal balance is rarely achieved by anyone and instead help must be available in determining margins in the midst of their commitments.
- Student-Athlete Benefits
- Although there are a number of risks for student-athletes to develop mental health issues, there are also many positive emotional benefits. Student-athletes often have positive self-esteem and body image; may have a built-in support network through teammates, coaches/athletic department staff and may feel very connected to the campus community. A student-athlete from an American study was quoted as saying: “I don’t regret being a student-athlete because I am a competitive person, so the satisfaction of being part of a team and working towards a goal outweighs the negatives that come with being a student-athlete.”
- The culture of sport emphasises being “mentally tough”, “showing no sign of weakness,” and “fighting through the pain”, this may inevitably prevent student-athletes from seeking help from professionals. Mental Health might be viewed as secondary to physical health; however, it is every bit as important for a successful sporting performance as our physical state. University is a time of significant change in the athlete’s life and with the increased demand of balancing academic deadlines with regular training and competition; student-athletes are subjected to a large amount of stress. Hence, mental health problems are an increased risk for this population and sufficient services should be made available if psychological help is warranted.
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About Emma Vickers
PhD Sport Psychology student (Athlete Career Transitions). England table tennis player.