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Mental Health: Current Situation and NCAA Policies

Athletes are one of the groups that face highly increased health risks in their lives, and it applies fully to college and university athletes. The rigors of studying combine with the pressure put in them as athletes combine to make university athletes susceptible to mental health issues. Even though one would assume that maintaining health and treating any physical or mental ailments that affect an athlete should be a rule of thumb in sports, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, athletes competing for the university teams may have a hard time accessing mental health services when suffering from mental health issues, especially when compared to their non-athlete counterparts. Multiple reasons ranging from sports culture to the lack of attention impede the university athletes’ access to mental health services, and while the perception slowly changes for the better, there is still much to do.

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Before discussing the obstacles that university athletes face when encountering mental health issues, one should briefly cover why they are particularly susceptible to such ailments. First of all, one should remember that receiving higher education is a stress factor for any student, whether a competing athlete or not. Transferring from a habitual environment, being away from home, and adapting to the more rigorous academic standards takes a toll even on the average student (Barnhouse, 2019). In the case of athletes, the situation becomes even more worth due to the consistent pressure to perform to the best of one’s ability when competing against people possessing similar training and motivation. Hence, mental health issues are not merely possible but something to be expected in athletes in university settings. Empirical evidence also suggests that the stress levels faced by university athletes are greater than those endured by most other students. Sudano et al. (2017) note that student-athletes show a higher level of behavioral health issues and stress when compared to their non-athlete counterparts. Thus, the combined pressure to perform both academically and athletically makes mental health issues a considerable problem for collegiate athletes.

This problem only becomes more prominent due to the difficulties in receiving help that the athletes face when they encounter mental health issues. One part of the situation is purely financial: if the educational institutions decide to save money on the athletes’ mental health, the access to the necessary services will be limited. Tomalksi et al. (2019) point out that the lack of resources available is one of the main reasons why student-athletes suffering from mental health issues cannot receive the help they need. Another essential component of the problem is the prevailing mindset in collegiate sports that encourages toughness, self-reliance, and the unwillingness to admit anything resembling weakness. Moreover, coaches can also be dismissive of mental health issues or even perceive the students reporting those as trying to manipulate the situation in their favor (Barnhouse, 2019). This mentality leads to a paradoxical situation when an athlete fully aware of the necessity of treating a physical injury is reluctant to ask for psychological help. Moreover, even having come to terms when the necessity, athletes can find themselves unable to do so if the university lacks the resources.

The narrative that downplays the importance of the student-athletes’ psychological well-being is not limited to individual athletes, coaches, or teams – the mindset is fairly pervasive. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is supposed to monitor the health of university athletes, but until recently, it had all but ignored the problems related to mental health. According to Barnhouse (2019), NCAA paid little attention to the subject throughout the 2000s and early 2010s as the evidence on the prevalence of mental health concerns mounted. Thus, the mentality of ignoring or dismissing psychological health proved remarkably durable in the institutional context.

Admittedly, there are signs of change in this prevailing narrative, and one cannot claim that NCAA disregards the problem entirely. One of the first indicators cane in 2013, when NCAA’s chief medical officer Brian Hainline pointed to mental health issues as the most pertinent safety concern for the organization (Barnhouse, 2019). In 2016, the NCAA issued the Best Mental Health Practice guidelines designed to educate students and coaches about safeguarding psychological well-being among the student-athletes. Finally, as recently as 2019, five conferences – namely, Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern – voted to make mental health services unanimously accessible to their collegiate athletes (Barnhouse, 2019). Put together, these developments signal that the dismissive mentality described above is not all-encompassing, and NCAA takes gradual steps to improve the situation and change the narrative.

Yet “gradual” seems to the operative word in this respect, as the pace of change is undeniably slow. Even the dates offered in the previous paragraph demonstrate that, even after becoming aware of the problem, the NCAA did not rush its measures in any manner. Three years had to pass between the organizations officially recognizing mental health issues as a pertinent problem among student-athletes and publishing the aforementioned practice guidelines (Barnhouse, 2019). Three more years have passed between the publication of said guidelines and any decisive actions on the part of the Power Five conferences (Barnhouse, 2019). Moreover, devising an effective screening process to identify mental health issues in collegiate athletes remained an acute problem as late as 2019 (Tomalksi et al., 2019). Without the screening process, little can be done to help the athletes in need. It means that the NCAA recommendations and the pledges of the conferences are declarations of goodwill rather than the practical steps to improve the situation. Thus, while there are definitely signs of progress in addressing mental health issues faced by university athletes, there is still a long way to go.

As one can see, mental health is an acute problem among student-athletes, and the narrative farming this problem barely begins to change to address it effectively. Being subjected to higher levels of stress than their non-athlete counterparts, collegiate athletes encounter more threats to their psychological well-being. Lack of resources in their educational institutions and the mindset that downplays mental help issues further exacerbates the situation by making it harder to seek and receive help. NCAA itself had done little to improve the existing situation until 2013, when it first recognized mental health issues among collegiate athletes as an acute problem. Since then, the organization has published expansive mental health practice guidelines and encourages football conferences to adopt a firm stance on providing psychological help to student-athletes in need. Yet even while the dismissive attitude toward mental health problems in college athletes slowly gives way, the pace of change is still incremental, and addressing the problem effectively would require a more energetic approach.

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Barnhouse, W. (2019). NCAA faces uphill battle getting mental health care to student-athletes. Global Sport Matters. Web.

Sudano, L. E., Collins, G., & Miles, C. M. (2017). Reducing barriers to mental health care for student-athletes: An integrated care model. Families, Systems, & Health, 35(1), 77–84.

Tomalski, J., Clevinger, K., Albert, E., Jackson, R., Wartalowitz, K., & Petrie, T. R. (2019). Mental health screening for athletes: Program development, implementation, and evaluation. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 20(2), 121-135.

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