When the Liberty League suspended winter and spring sports in March and fall sports in August, student-athletes were heartbroken.
The global community is hurting right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but athletes are struggling in a unique way. An NCAA survey of 37,000 student-athletes released in May found that the rates of mental health concerns were 150% to 250% higher than those historically reported by NCAA student-athletes in the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment. One in 10 survey respondents reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function “constantly” or “most every day.” Prior to the pandemic, approximately 25% of college athletes reported clinically significant depressive symptoms.
Mental health has always been a major concern for college athletics, and those issues are only being exacerbated by the isolation and decrease in physical activity that athletes are facing. Suicide is one of the top causes of death among student-athletes, according to the NCAA.
At Ithaca College, the vast majority of mental health support for athletes centers on performance in competition. The college’s sport psychology graduate program includes opportunities for students to work with individual athletes and sports teams at the college on their mental training. Teams that participate in sports psychology sessions cover topics like effective goal setting, resilience and stress management during competition.
Mental illness is notably absent from the curriculum. Instead, athletes are taught in spaces like the Sports Leadership Academy that they are only committed to their teams if they are constantly putting in extra work. They are taught that a real leader never has two bad days in a row. They are taught that the pandemic is a time to accelerate, not a time to coast. While these messages can be encouraging and inspirational for some, they can also be incredibly damaging, especially to athletes who are struggling the most with their mental health.
In her book, “What Made Maddy Run,” journalist Kate Fagan dissects the prevalence of mental health problems among college athletes. She also writes about the toxic environment that seemingly motivational statements can create for athletes.
“At [the University of] Colorado, a saying above one doorway read, ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body,’” Fagan wrote. “Imagine, with that sign hanging over you, telling a coach that you can’t [practice] that day. Not because your body hurts, … but because your brain does. Pushing through pain, clearing hurdles others have crashed into, is how an athlete improves. Knowing the difference between a hurdle and a brick wall is also crucial.”
While athletes normally have access to the college’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, students who reside outside New York state are not currently able to utilize clinical services. According to research by Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, only 10% of college athletes dealing with significant anxiety or depression seek help to begin with. Now that professional help is even less accessible amid the pandemic, that percentage is likely lower, even though mental health concerns have skyrocketed.
COVID-19 has caused unprecedented losses in every aspect of life, and athletes need more than inspiration right now. The statistics show that student-athletes desperately need real help from professionals trained to address their daily psychological well-being beyond sports. They need their emotions — sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, lack of motivation — to be validated, not condemned. There is nothing inherently wrong with training athletes to overcome challenging times, but this moment is unlike anything that the world has faced before. Now is the time to take a step back and recognize that athletes are human beings above anything else, and their mental health must be addressed in a positive and understanding way.