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Supporting Student-Athletes – College Sports’ Role in Mental Health

Last month, MindWise Director of Mental Health Screening & Research Lisa Desai moderated a TEDx Talk on “Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Health” at the 40th Annual Women Leaders in College Sports Convention. The panel brought much-needed attention to the importance of college athletics in supporting the behavioral health of student-athletes. The TEDx discussion highlighted the unique roles coaches, university administrators, and the NCAA play in promoting and maintaining student-athlete mental health.

Panelists included Nicole Powell, Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Grand Canyon University; Nnenna Akotaobi, Senior Associate Director of Athletics/SWA at Swarthmore Colleges; and Jessica Wagner, Associate Director of Prevention and Health Promotion with the NCAA.

The panel reviewed a number of strategies to best support student-athletes on an individual level as well as at the campus level and beyond. One key theme was the promotion of mental health awareness in order to foster team cultures where honest discussions can take place. Coaches hold a particularly important position because of their influence with student-athletes; moreover, most college coaches were themselves athletes in college and know firsthand the pressures and mental health struggles facing student-athletes. They can set the tone within teams and athletic departments to exercise empathy, to promote mental health resources, and to minimize the barriers for students to reach out for help. Athletic directors also have a vital part to play in ensuring that coaches and athletes have a clear understanding of their roles, how to manage expectations, and how best to create a network of support on campus.

At a policy level, Division I and II colleges have taken an unprecedented step by passing legislation that requires colleges and universities to provide mental health education and resources  through their athletics departments’ and/or schools’ health or counseling services. Division III colleges recently voted on similar mental health legislation in October. Overall, the message is clear that higher education has a responsibility to support student-athletes’ mental well-being.

Says Dr. Desai of the TEDx Talk: “The esteemed leaders on this panel highlighted the need to approach student-athlete mental health in higher education from a systems perspective – from trusted conversations between athlete and coach, ensuring the college has needed resources in place, and working at a national level to impact policy.”