Dangerous game: 92% of colleges fail to deliver mental health support for athletes

New study from NAIA and Mantra Health shows a lack of trainers and psychologists for those battling depression.

The tragic suicide of Stanford women’s soccer player Katie Meyer this March and the public struggles of superstars Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles have accelerated the need for mental health assistance for athletes. Even the best in the world battle depression anxiety and isolation, but are they getting help? Especially at the college level?

The answer is, not nearly as much as they should be, according to a new study released by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and Mantra Health. The report concludes that 90% of athletic directors believe their institutions do not offer enough training or psychiatric support services for student-athletes and their coaches.

“With all the stressors that come with juggling school work, social life and a demanding athletics career, it is important that our institutions are able to protect and prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of our student-athletes,” NAIA President and CEO Jim Carr said. “We want to thoroughly understand the services and resources that can help our student-athletes, and the findings of this survey are a great step in giving us this insight.”

Nearly three-quarters of the 50 NAIA institution leaders surveyed said they don’t have sports psychologists or therapists in their athletics departments, while around 45% said their institutions’ overall resources related to mental health are “average.” They said this impacts two of the core concerns of college and university administrators—student success and retention. ADs and other leaders surveyed said student-athletes are especially vulnerable because of the severe time constraints forced by playing and keeping up with classwork (92%), plus struggles with relationships outside sports (82%) and financial hardships (77%).

“In addition to the normal stressors of college life, student-athletes face a lot of pressure to perform in sports and academics, all while balancing interpersonal relationships and personal responsibilities,” said Dr. Liz Jodoin, clinical solutions consultant at Mantra Health. “We’ve also seen that student-athletes are less likely to seek help than non-athletes since many have been conditioned to play through physical, emotional, and psychological pain. As a result, this has contributed in part to higher rates of stress, anxiety, depression and, in many cases, has exacerbated pre-existing mental health conditions.”

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Students-athletes are a critical part of most institutions, comprising about 15% of populations on campuses. They also bring eminence to colleges and universities, even if they don’t rise to the levels of Phelps or Biles. The outspokenness of elite athletes has elevated the conversation and brought new questions about how institutions can help properly deliver services to all of them. Right now, there are major gaps that health and athletic leaders said need to be addressed.

“The larger initiative Mantra and NAIA are trying to tackle is to change the culture in athletics,” said Ed Gaussen, co-founder and CEO of Mantra Health. “Our goal is to help athletic departments build robust mental health practices, which will take time, research and collaboration. This will also have the greatest chance of addressing student-athletes’ specific needs and improving their mental health in the long term.”

In order to try to help institutions and their athletic departments provide better support, Mantra Health has released new guidance called Taking a Team Approach to Mental Health. In it, the agency offers “recommendations for transforming athletic departments.” Among the topics covered are the 10 best practices for athletics programs to follow and how colleges can handle and prevent worst-case scenarios from occurring.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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