Mental health poses serious problem in NCAA athletics

By Sophie Afdhal || Sports Editor

     As a Psychology major and the Sports Editor, both mental health and sports are issues very near to my heart. Mental health is especially vulnerable during the college years and based on unfortunate recent evidence, college athletes are even more vulnerable.

     Last January, 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania runner Madison Holleran took her own life. Since this tragedy, a conversation has really begun about the climate of NCAA athletics inside the locker room. Athletics add an additional level of activity to a college experience, unlike that of a typical extracurricular. As the NCAA website states, players are exposed to an additional set of risk factors that other students do not face.

     Fox Sports recently conducted interviews with NCAA athletes, coaches, and mental health professionals in an effort to gauge current climate. Their research focused primarily on female athletes, because unfortunately women are nearly twice as likely to develop mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Women are more vulnerable to eating disorders, which are prevalent due to focus and discussion of their
bodies.

     The women shared anecdotes about focus placed on their bodies, which while not intended to be inherently negative, had the potential for long-term psychological damage. One woman on the Dartmouth College volleyball team was hooked up to a machine to track changes in body fat percentage. It is hard to not become self-conscious with coaches and trainers analyzing minute numerical changes in your weight. Adolescent self-focus is already high during formative college years and the additions of further scrutiny will only further the issue.

     To further exacerbate the issue, the majority of the women stated that they were unlikely to seek help from on campus counseling services. The stigma surrounding mental health is a serious issue in this case as it continues to prevent athletes from reaching out. Those student athletes sampled who had attempted to reach out encountered a three-week wait for a counselor.

     The NCAA does recognize its responsibilities and the responsibilities of fellow stakeholders, such as coaches, administrators, and teammates, but taking that responsibility does not decrease the prevalence of these issues. Athletes are unaware of available resources to combat mental health difficulties provided by the NCAA.

      In 2013, the NCAA declared mental health awareness its number one health and safety concern, but making a declaration is very different from addressing the problem.

     The NCAA also convened the NCAA Mental Health Task force under the guidance of Neurologist Brian Hainline in 2013. The primary purpose of this task force was to release a handbook but it is unclear what they have done since that meeting. Shedding light on the problem is the first step but with all this attention, hopefully they will be forced to make significant strides.   

     The College Reporter Sports section would like to remind all those facing mental illness or even just severe stress that Counseling Services is an available and free resource. Caring for ones mind as an athlete is just as import as protecting oneself from injury.

Senior Sophie Afdhal is the Sports Editor. Her email is safdhal@fandm.edu.

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