While it’s no secret that professional and college athletes put their bodies through a tremendous amount of strain, the mental health toll that can come with being an athlete has only recently been brought into public light. Recently, the National Football League in particular has come under scrutiny, since some health care providers have begun to question whether the head trauma that players can sustain as a result of playing the game may be causing them to have mental health problems down the line. In light of these recent issues, athletes, coaches and health care professionals have been coming together to help increase awareness about mental health issues and sports.
For example, ESPN recently spoke to Will Heininger, a four-time Academic All-Big 10 honoree and defensive tackle who played football at Michigan Statue University. He explained that when he tore his ACL in 2010 it was public knowledge to all of his fans and fellow players. However, while the pain in his knee was something that was commonly known, the mental anguish he was experiencing was not. Heininger explained that not a moment would go by during the day when he was not thinking about how depressed he felt, and he described the pain he was feeling as “overwhelming.”
Heininger’s story highlights the problem of hidden mental illness among athletes, which is a serious and complicated issue without a simple answer.
Concerning figures at the college level
ESPN explained that according to the latest data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, suicide was the third leading cause of death among college athletes between 2004 and 2008.
“Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country. It’s a public health issue and now we’re seeing it more and more in our student-athletes,” Timothy Neal, assistant athletic director for sports medicine at Syracuse University, told the news source. “One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues, but what is unique about the student-athlete is they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue.”
Despite these numbers, not enough is being done to assess how these athletes are fairing off the field. For example, ESPN stated that between 2011 and 2012, 450,000 students played college sports, yet there is no data on how many of these individuals may be experiencing psychological issues, despite the high suicide rate among these people. Furthermore, the news source pointed out that in comparison to the number of resources in schools that are dedicated to the physical health of athletes, the mental resources are few and far between.
Calling for change
The NCAA is taking steps to address this issue by encouraging schools to do more to meet the mental health needs of their college athletes. For example, the organization has hired neurologist Brian Hainline as its first chief medical officer and created the NCAA Mental Health Task Force.
The Associated Press reported in September 2013 that the National Athletic Trainers Association believes that college athletes may be more willing to open up about their mental health issues to trainers and team physicians than to their coaches or teammates. Student athletes should feel as comfortable talking about psychological problems as they would physical issues, which is why the stigma surrounding mental health needs to be abolished on college campuses.
“There’s a stigma there, and they still don’t want to seek help,” Margot Putukian, head team physician at Princeton who has worked with the NFL on establishing return-to-play policies following concussions, told the Associated Press. “So, you have a group of individuals that have inherent in them this issue of driving, pulling, pushing through any kind of obstacle. So when they have a mental health issue, oftentimes, they think there’s that obstacle – that they don’t want to seek help because they see it as a sign of weakness.”
This is especially important since the need is becoming increasingly clear. John Sullivan, a consulting psychologist for Providence College and the University of Rhode Island athletic department, told ESPN that there is a growing number of athletes who have received medical waivers because they are experiencing psychological issues. He said that years ago he was administering documentation of this sort for about one or two athletes a year, but now that number has reached five or six.
Eliminating the stigma
While some of the statistics regarding mental health problems and student athletes may seem high, the more concerning fact is that many more may be in need of assistance yet aren’t seeking it. This is why Heiniger and other former and current college athletes who have struggled with mental health issues in the past are speaking out now, to let students know they are not alone and to spare them from the experiences that they have gone through.
“I was breaking down; I couldn’t keep functioning the way I was without any help. It happened one day after practice, tears were welling in my eyes, and I didn’t want to cry in front of my football family. My athletic trainer … saw me and took me aside,” Heiniger told ESPN. “He mentioned to me that over half of the student-athletes were on antidepressant medication for the unique stressors that we go through as student-athletes and that alone made me feel like, ‘Whew, like this is not just me. This is normal and that there’s no reason to be embarrassed about it,’ so it was huge to have those people know and know that they cared.”
NATA is calling for athletic departments to include mental health questions as a part of routine physicals that college athletes undergo, in an attempt to better track the psychological state of players. If trainers begin to suspect that a player may be experiencing mental health issues, NATA recommended that they speak to that player privately and refer them to counselors or school officials who have the credentials to help them seek appropriate treatment.