Education, Health, and Safety

Perspective | There’s a mental health crisis in college sports. I know it firsthand.

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It was January 2015 when the Xavier University Athletic Department called a mandatory event for all student-athletes. Sitting in our athletic center, we all migrated to our respective teams. None of us were told why we were there; on the stage stood a lone lectern and microphone.

Finally, a man took the stage and started speaking. He was a former Division I football player on the fast track to the NFL until he got hurt. Throughout college, he said, he battled severe depression.

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At the time, I was a sophomore cross-country and track runner. I was struggling to keep my spot on the varsity roster and simultaneously fighting anemia and post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault — a situation I kept private except for close friends.

But in that moment, I thought I couldn’t relate to what the speaker was saying. I wasn’t part of a revenue-making sports team nor even close to becoming a professional athlete. I only wanted to represent my school and be the best runner I could be during college.

The speaker eventually opened up the discussion to my fellow athletes — one even spoke to the entire audience, saying they contemplated suicide after a bad season. But their words didn’t stick with me after we left the athletic center. Because once I entered the reality we called a campus, my mind reverted back to the pressures I was facing — romantic crushes, the beginning of winter track season. Everything clouded what I later learned to be my depression.

Increasingly, more former and current student-athletes like Harry Miller and Elijah Wade are speaking out about the intersections of mental health and their sports. Unfortunately, the recent deaths by suicide of female student-athletes — including Katie Meyer, Sarah Shulze and Lauren Bernett — have raised more urgent questions. Mostly, why? Is the pressure to perform too extreme? Is there insufficient access to mental health resources for student-athletes?

It could be many factors, if not all of them, according to Josie Nicholson, a sports psychologist and counselor at the University of Mississippi.

“Student-athletes on campuses are hit with more pressure to perform and excel,” Nicholson told me. “They live such hectic schedules with so many expectations. … There’s not really much time to stop and process anything.”

According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, there’s a higher depression prevalence rate among young adults, and college athletes face unique risk factors. In general, the depression rate for women is higher than men, and studies have found that women college athletes reported more depressive symptoms than male college athletes. And as the NCAA reports, student-athletes have faced increased mental health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.

For Nicholson, another salient factor is that student-athletes are in their fundamental years of growing into adulthood. Most NCAA athletes are 18 to 23 — and figuring out their identities.

Many have grown up with dreams and talent, Nicholson said, and others around them “stop talking about who they are and emphasize what they do. Their world becomes about taking that dream and living up to those expectations.” In college, that one aspect of their identity becomes overemphasized, she added.

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Julie Amato, a sports psychologist at Elite Mindset Sports and Princeton University, says that women athletes, in particular, struggle with perfectionism. “In my experience working with both male and female college athletes, female athletes are more preoccupied with comparing themselves to others and are more fearful of judgment and disapproval by others,” she said. “They tend to magnify their mistakes and shortcomings, and feel relieved instead of joyful when they succeed.”

Indeed, there are many layers to my own story, but the overarching constant in the chaos of my trauma was my identity as a student-athlete and, ultimately, a runner. Other traumas, including my assault, compounded, and I developed an eating disorder, anxiety and depression.

The athletic center where I practiced was no longer a place of relief but a stomping ground I feared. It was a reminder of the trauma I couldn’t process.

By my junior year, I left the cross-country and track team. Months later, I was hospitalized and on suicide watch, and eventually diagnosed with bipolar depression. Luckily, my school had resources in place to accommodate my schoolwork. Professors and administrators checked in on me weekly, and I had access to on-campus counseling. But not every school has what mine did. And not every athletic program has access to a sports psychologist — a professional I (and many) needed the moment I came to campus as a student-athlete.

Back then, I didn’t know how to ask for help; I didn’t want to let people down. But I was suffering so much that the expectation to compete at an elite level was insurmountable. I’m thankful people knew to provide me with help. “Recognizing that you can stop, you can reach out” is the first step to coming out on the other side, according to Nicholson.

Nicholson also says that truly helping student-athletes requires “athletes hearing from coaches, everybody, what the resources are and encouraging them to use those resources, while genuinely checking in with each other.”

Amato agrees that detecting signs early leads to saving lives. “Working to de-stigmatize seeking help within athletics culture is also a critical step,” she said. “Too often we hear there were no signs — which tells me the person was likely struggling internally but did not know how to talk about it, or what to do about it.”

But most of all, Amato says, people need to treat student-athletes as “humans first and foremost”: “We need to ask about their life outside of sport, show that you care about them and are invested in them regardless of how they perform athletically.”

Walking away from a sport that I truly loved was, and still is, heartbreaking. But more heartbreaking for me now are the stories of current student-athletes’ suffering. I eventually turned to advocacy work as a way to empower myself and others, and I learned that many more were struggling with situations similar to mine.

At Xavier, our saying was, “All for one and one for all.” To achieve true change for athletes, it will take all of us — the NCAA, universities and other students — to help one another. Because every individual is worth saving.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor at 741741.

Devi Jags is a co-founder of Sambar Kitchen and an MFA creative writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College.

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