More than thirty percent of college-aged individuals reported having some form of mental illness during 2010 or 2011 and these same statistics are present in the student athlete population. As a group often defined by their goal-oriented, high achieving nature, athletes may have a difficult time admitting when they are struggling with a mental illness. They may also be concerned that issues with their mental health and subsequent treatment could interfere with their sport and jeopardize the identity they have worked to create for themselves.
When discussing health with student athletes, they will likely first think of their physical health. Many student athletes are driven by performance, but athletic performance is just as relative to mental health as it is to physical health. For student athletes who may be at a high risk for depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns such as eating disorders or alcoholism, one opportunity for early identification may lie in their relationship with an athletic trainer.
Athletic trainers have a unique position that allows them consistent and personal contact with students. Trainers get to know the students and can often spot abnormalities in behavior. Performance can also provide insight into a student’s mental wellbeing. If a student athlete is not eating or sleeping well, or is showing signs of fatigue, this will often become apparent during practice or a game. Poor athletic performance can intensify a student athlete’s depression and create heightened pressure to perform better.
While athletic trainers and coaches have the potential to play a critical role in identifying mental health issues in student athletes, most do not have the proper training necessary to identify diagnostic criteria for mental health disorders. In a study conducted by Dr. Andrew Krause at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, 211 athletic trainers (with a median of 15.2 years of clinical practice) were surveyed about their experiences managing athletes with mental health disorders. Although 70 percent reported feeling competent to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders in order to make appropriate referrals, only 44 percent actually were able to correctly identify the diagnostic criteria for at-risk students.
Considering these statistics, college counseling centers have a unique opportunity to connect with athletic trainers, coaches, and sports psychologists on campus. With proper instruction and screening tools, athletic department staff can play an important role in early identification and will be able to effectively connect at-risk student athletes with the treatment resources they need.