Mental health care support crucial for college athletes

With so much uncertainty swirling around athletics and players' futures, university leaders must be proactive in providing strategies to help them.
By: | August 20, 2020
Viktor Gladkov, Getty Images

The images and emotions are almost overpowering.

Empty stadiums. Abandoned locker rooms. Scrapped schedules. The loss of camaraderie. The potential loss of scholarships. And an uncertain future.

At a time when college athletes should be thinking about practices, designed plays, and touchdown celebrations, these are some of the worries weighing on their minds. Add in the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and many have never faced adversity like this, either on or off the field.

“There’s a great amount of loss and anxiety,” says Dr. Jan Hall, executive director of mental health at TimelyMD, a telehealth provider. “These athletes have trained for years. They’re trying to retain their scholarships or they’re hoping that scouts from the pros give them one more glimpse. I think they feel the pressure and the fears, and I think it can be one of devastation.”

For scores of higher education institutions, difficult decisions remain on their fall seasons. The ACC and SEC are two conferences vowing to play on. Athletic power Notre Dame hasn’t canceled play, though the university had to postpone classes for two weeks during a recent outbreak of 222 positive Covid-19 tests.

From Baylor to North Dakota, colleges are reporting new cases. Is it only a matter of time before more universities and conferences follow the lead of the Big Ten and Pac-12 and wipe out fall seasons?

What happens to their athletes then?

Hall says university leaders should be preparing now to deal with the fallout by making sure student-athletes can get help if they need it.

“These students are going to need support and strategies to help them express and process their feelings,” Hall says. “They might do that through different ways that the university and athletic directors and coaches help to provide. It might be a psychologist in their athletic department, using counseling centers, or getting connected through telehealth, which is a big resource.”

The main reasons Hall cites for colleges to be proactive is the time and money they’ve invested in their athletes and the positive impact it likely will have on their institutions in the future.

“Our colleges, athletic directors, coaches, and university leaders have to come alongside these students and look at ways to be a support for them,” Hall says. “I think it’s going help determine the long-term mental health of some of their students, and I think it may have a lot to do with whether they retain them.

“I think it’s a real asset to a university, for students to be able to access mental health care in a way that’s easy, that’s there 24/7 and that’s going to help students become stronger individuals and stronger people in life.”

The struggle to reach out

Mental illness affects 20% of Americans at some time in their lives, and athletes are not immune. According to the non-profit Athletes for Hope, 35% of professional athletes experience some form of mental health crisis – be it depression and anxiety or simply stress or burnout. The most high-profile and most outspoken about the disease is swimmer Michael Phelps.

Though nearly 30% of those elite athletes reach out for assistance, college athletes only seek help 10% of the time. The numbers who are afflicted are growing. A recent study done by Hall and her team at TimelyMD shows that 85% of college students have faced stress during the pandemic. Only 21% of those sought help.

TimelyMD provides unique physical and mental health care for colleges and universities, with services available 24/7 to students, who have access to licensed counselors and behavioral health specialists. The telehealth option is free for students through their universities and can be a lifeline for those who feel more comfortable reaching out via phone or through a website than seeking counseling in person.

“Sometimes we are the first mental health group that students have taken the initiative to see,” Hall says. “It is a wonderful option for them because they can be in their dorm room and call. Even if they’re a bit isolated, they can still be at home and they can reach out. Getting out and walking across campus to a counseling center is going to be pretty tough on some of them.”

Regardless of how students seek care, Hall says it is important for college leaders – both in administration and in athletic departments – to be proactive and provide options. Hall says student-athletes are particularly vulnerable right now, with many of their schools opting not to play this season and with championships being canceled for Division I, II and III schools.

Those losses will be devastating for the NCAA, but president Mark Emmert offered some perspective during a recent interview released to members.

“The last thing you want to do is gloss over mental-health issues. I worry profoundly about this,” he said. “Sports is at the center of these young men’s and women’s lives. Rather than thinking about it as a canceled or a lost fall, let’s instead think of it as a pivot toward winter and spring. Let’s use the fall to focus on the physical and mental health, the academic success of our student-athletes.”

Many schools and conferences, such as the Big Ten and Pac-12, that have canceled fall activities are looking at options to bring them back early next year.

Providing that support

Though headlines in recent weeks have focused primarily on football and the potential for superstar athletes such as Heisman Trophy favorite Trevor Lawrence to be affected – will he turn pro if his season is canceled? – there are thousands of other athletes who play soccer, volleyball, cross-country and other sports who are equally impacted. They too vie for conference titles and individual championships. Some of them have aspirations of competing in the Olympics. Some are walk-ons while some have scholarships and just love playing, including many of the second-stringers on Lawrence’s Clemson team.

“They’ve trained so hard for much of their lives to get to this point, and to have that pulled from them is devastating,” Hall says.

But she implores leaders to turn uneasy questions like the ones below into motivational messages.

“How do you live life when adversity is in your face? How do you develop the internal strength to deal with things that you never plan on?”

Hall talked about a video interview she saw with another quarterback, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, who simply said, “you can control what you can control.”

“I thought, this is a healthy way to frame and manage anxiety.”

But not every athlete has that same perspective. Hall noted the importance of university leaders, athletic directors and coaches to be able to communicate with their players in a positive way.

“Coaches and athletic directors can let them know it’s normal to have some of these feelings of anxiety and sadness, so students don’t feel like something’s wrong with them or feel anxious about what is next,” Hall says. “They need to help students feel like they are still part of a team and figure out ways for them to support each other. I think it’s important for coaches to continue that team spirit, to continue to huddle, to continue allowing students to connect with each other because there are bonds there, sometimes lifelong bonds.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com