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Mental Health Hurdles for College Athletes

The transition from high school to college can be an exciting and challenging time for student athletes. New friends, dorm life, classes, and extracurriculars are all part of the experience. As members of a new team, athletes will face their own unique stressors. How will they connect with team members? What will the coach be like? Over time, these insecurities and fears can lead to problems including acute stress and depression.

According to research from the University of Michigan, student athletes are less likely to seek help for mental health concerns. About one in three adults will seek treatment for depression, but in athletes, that number is just one in ten. Athletes report stigma-related concerns including team status and playing time. Often, the same traits that make an athlete successful such as determination and physical strength, can lead them to believe they can tough it out on their own.

Leaders in the college athletic field are taking note of these issues. The chief medical officer of the NCAA recently issued recommendations that athletic directors implement mental health screening programs and help campus counseling centers take care of the unique problems student athletes face.

While collegiate sports can bring on stress, there is also plenty of evidence supporting their mental health benefits. An Australian study found women who participate in club sports enjoyed better mental health and life satisfaction than women who exercise at a gym or walk alone. Researchers argued more should be done to encourage people to participate in team sports.

The Will to Live Foundation is familiar with the benefits of team sports and the camaraderie it can provide. The suicide prevention organization works with teenagers to recognize the importance of friendship through the Life Teammates Program. Sports can provide unique bonds between young adults. These bonds help to guard against stress and mental illness during difficult times.

Starting college isn’t always easy, especially for athletes, but programs exist to ease the transition. Student athletes should be encouraged to take advantage of the on-campus support available.  Identifying symptoms of mental illness early is important and can play an key role in recovery. Teammates and friends are in a good position to help identify symptoms and encourage treatment.

Eime, R.M.; Harvey, J.T.; Brown, W.J.; Payne, W.R. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 42 (5), May 2010, 1022-1028.