In the last few years, to the perspective of an outsider, it would seem as though tremendous progress has been made in the mental health arena, especially amongst college students. As the topic of mental health is pulled to the forefront conversations, it would seem as though we are giving a voice to the voiceless with more mental health initiatives being established now than ever before. Despite the efforts of many colleges to expand mental health efforts, however, one group has consistently been forgotten about: student athletes.
In the past two months, five NCAA athletes have passed away via suicide. Their deaths shocked the athletic community; these individuals had all been high-achievers, both on and off the field, and the grief and confusion was obvious as people struggled to understand these tragedies.
College athletics can quickly become a toxic breeding ground for mental health issues. Athletes are expected to perform well on the field while also balancing their schoolwork, which can quickly become incredibly overwhelming. Along with a culture of silence that surrounds athlete mental health and unrealistically high expectations, it should come as no surprise that student athletes are silently suffering. Overwhelmed at meeting all the necessary priorities, athletes are so focused on maintaining their physical health and grades that mental health is pushed aside and forgotten.
Pushed to their limits, unfortunately very few college athletes actually end up seeking help for mental health challenges they inevitably face. For college students with mental health conditions, 30% will end up seeking help, while for athletes, that figure is 10%. This major disparity not only points to a disconnect between college athletes and mental health resources, but also to a broader mental health crisis in sports, unique from that of non-athletes.
Student-athletes also experience embarrassment at seeking mental health help, especially because it is less common amongst their athlete peers. Just because someone may seem to be doing well, that is not always necessarily the case. Appearances can be extremely misleading, as was seen in many of the cases of recent deaths. Since the warning signs of mental illness are not always as clear for athletes as they may be amongst other non-athletes, due to the emphasis on their athletic performance rather than their personal behavior, it becomes even more difficult to determine when help is needed, pointing to a dire need to reassess how we view athlete mental health.
At BC especially, many are quick to judge the experiences of athletes as somehow easier than their own. When other Eagles think of student-athletes, they often jump to unfair and sometimes downright derogatory conclusions, including academic laziness. Nearly every single time BC loses a game against an opponent, students blame the athletes. Yet, when regular students have an off day, nobody publicly chastises and ridicules them. A poor exam grade does not automatically signify to others that they are dumb. Their hypocrisy is evident, and a large part of fixing the college athlete mental health crisis comes from reexamining our own prejudices and unjustified preconceived notions.
Since athletes are already so isolated from the rest of the student body, it makes sense that others do not recognize the severity of the student athlete mental health crisis. The experience of athletes is so vastly different from that of non-athletes that many of the challenges they face are rarely encountered by others.
While speaking with one of my friends who is an athlete, she mentioned the difficulty she had registering for classes, since all the classes she needed to take conflicted with her practice schedule. This dilemma has forced her to take courses out of the order of the preferred sequence in her major, in addition to now having to take summer classes.
While I complain about class registration every time it occurs, I still have the opportunity to fulfill the requirements I need to, even if it isn’t necessarily my first-choice class. I didn’t realize the added burden that class registration brings for college athletes. This same friend was only recently informed of a tournament during finals week, resulting in the last-minute rearrangement of her finals schedule. While these are only two issues amongst the many that college athletes face, they make it completely understandable why the mental health of athletes can take on such a toll.
Reconciling the grueling schedules of student athletes with time for mental health poses a serious challenge, but we must reorder the priorities of college athletics. Mental health comes first and foremost. It is not optional, but must be treated with just as much importance as school and sports.
Before we are quick to dismiss this as yet another mental health crisis amongst the many already present, let us ask ourselves: are we doing everything we can to support athletes’ mental health? The best form of appreciation we can show to our athletes is genuine concern over their mental health. The stigma attached to mental health, especially amongst athletes, stems largely from our lack of understanding surrounding the issues they face.
As non-athletes, we are not exempt from this crisis. It is just as much our responsibility to support student athletes’ mental health as it is the athletics community. We, as an NCAA member school, cannot allow another student athlete to take their own life. The time to start changing the culture of college sports starts now.