As Shalise Manza Young pointed out in a recent column for Yahoo! Sports, at least five National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes in the United States have died by suicide in the last couple of months.
One young person committing suicide is a tragedy. Five young student-athletes with bright futures taking their lives in such a short time is simply beyond words.
Sport has always been primarily about the physical: run faster, jump higher, throw harder, shoot better, etc. Practices are 99 percent about physical skill development. The mental game is only occasionally touched on.
Traditionally, our sports culture’s way of handling mental and emotional health issues is to ignore them. The mantra has long been “Suck it up!” Given this type of culture, athletes often feel that if they admit to struggling with mental or emotional problems, it shows a weakness in character and endangers their spot on the team.
That doesn’t work. It never did. You stuff things down inside and, at some point, there needs to be a release. For some, it can be acting out in a violent manner. For others, it’s domestic abuse or sexual assault. Others develop anxiety disorders. And some, unfortunately, become depressed and suicidal.
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“One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues, but what is unique about the student-athlete is they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue,” says Timothy Neal, a member of the NCAA task force on mental health and wellness, and an assistant professor at Concordia University Ann Arbor in Michigan.
The problem could be even worse than Neal believes. One study revealed that 63 percent of student athletes reported having had an emotional or mental health issue that affected their athletic performance in the four weeks prior to the survey.
Because of the “Suck it up!” mentality, athletes tend to bottle up emotions and mental health struggles more than the average person.
In a study of University of Michigan athletes, only 10 percent of those with mental health conditions reached out for help compared to 30 percent of college students in general.
Sports psychology is a burgeoning field. But most sports psychologists focus on performance only – how to deal with anxiety and other mental roadblocks in order to improve performance on the field, court, ice, track, etc. Very few spend time digging into what else is going on in an athlete’s life besides their sports participation.
Top-level athletes are driven to be perfect in all they do – on and off the field. Perfectionism has been shown to be a leading cause of depression and, thus, suicide. I’ve never heard a coach or sports psychologist talk about dealing with perfectionism in athletes.
Here’s the message all college athletes need to hear: It’s okay not to be okay.
It’s okay to be dealing with a mental health issue. Just like it’s okay to treat a torn ACL or a separated shoulder.
One of the best mental health programs on college campuses was started at Oregon State University. It’s called Dam Worth It and was started by two student-athletes grieving the loss of teammates to suicide. The program’s name is a play on the school’s nickname (Beavers), as well as a call for anyone struggling with mental health issues to realize their self-worth and seek help when needed.
Dam Worth It strives to end the stigma around mental health and let student-athletes who might be struggling know that vulnerability, while scary, builds connections and those connections help you build mental and emotional strength.
The organization is growing, helping more college athletes. Dam Worth It secured grants from the Pac-12 Conference, which helped the model spread to other college campuses in the conference.
As it expands, what is now called Dam Worth It Co. is focusing on developing branches on college and university campuses across the United States.
The NCAA was formed to protect the health and wellness of student-athletes. When it comes to mental health, the organization is failing miserably. The NCAA talks about mental health for athletes, but very little of a tangible and practical nature is actually done.
If the NCAA were smart, it would give Dam Worth It a multimillion-dollar grant to help the group reach all college athletes.
Because when it comes to dealing with the mental health challenges of college athletes, Dam Worth It is walking the talk. And that’s something the NCAA has yet to do.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.
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