It’s crucial to build a supportive environment for student-athletes
With the recent news of multiple student-athlete suicides across the country, changing the culture of mental health among the student-athlete population has become a priority. The pressure to compete at a high level in addition to the already stressful college life is something that needs to be reevaluated.
In addition to managing their rigorous academic schedules, student-athletes essentially take on the workload of a part-time job with the amount of practice they have during the season and sometimes in the offseason as well. Even when practices are labeled as “optional,” students may still feel pressured to go for any number of reasons. With such a busy schedule, a lot of people can stress themselves out and with little mental health support, it can be costly.
Expectations to perform at a high level while focusing on grades and meeting the GPA minimum requirement to remain eligible to play can make student-athletes put mental health on the back burner. In the culture of sports, prioritizing mental health can be seen as an invalid excuse, but this shouldn’t be the case. Even if a school has resources available to student-athletes, athletics administrators and coaches have a responsibility to support student-athletes and encourage them to take advantage of these resources.
“Key barriers include more negative attitudes towards help-seeking amongst athletes than the general population, as well as greater stigma and poorer mental health literacy,” read a 2019 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine. “Fear of the consequences of seeking help (e.g. loss of selection) and lack of time are also influential.”
As we have seen with DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, professional athletes aren’t invincible when it comes to mental health struggles. Student-athletes face similar pressures to compete at a high level, but also must juggle academics and limited time to study for exams.
That’s not even mentioning the stressors that come from outside sources. For some student-athletes, athletic scholarships are their only pathway to education, which can lead some to heavily prioritize performance over wellbeing.
Getting injured can further strain mental health; it can be difficult to cope with and requires adjustments to everyday life. Student-athletes may feel a burden from not wanting to lose a spot or not being able to compete and help the team.
At UC Davis, there have been many student-driven efforts to support mental health in athletics, including Athlete Guidance and Support. This resource group works to promote mental health awareness and offers support in the athletic community, among other initiatives.
For the most part, the emphasis on health in sports has been with regard to physical injury. It’s time for every university (if they haven’t yet) to begin putting mental health at the same level as physical health. Sports teams and their fans should equally respect these concerns and create an environment where student-athletes are understood and can comfortably ask for help.
Written by: The Editorial Board