Treating mental health for collegiate athletes

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association is a professional membership association for certified athletic trainers and those supporting the profession. In over half a century of existence, NATA has accumulated more than 35,000 members throughout the world, including the majority of certified athletic trainers. NATA has managed to remain one of the most prominent and well-respected voices in sports health for decades. Most importantly, NATA doesn’t single out physical well-being alone. In fact, the organization made a recent call to action to colleges: Start treating mental health for collegiate athletes as seriously as physical health.

According to USA Today, NATA released a set of guidelines in September that it believed would help athletes deal with depression, suicidal thoughts and other major mental health issues. Part of the recommendations was equipping athletic trainers and team physicians with the resources necessary to detect potential mental illness early on.

NATA is gaining support from those who dealt with these issues firsthand.

“If you’re an athletic director, and you want to be successful and you want to have good programs that are going to help your bottom line, wouldn’t you want the healthiest student athletes you can have?” said former University of Michigan defensive tackle Will Heininger, who dealt with depression while in college, quoted by USA Today. “Wouldn’t you want the best mental health care providers and the best program in the country?”

Erasing stigma
Part of the NATA initiative is finding the individuals in whom college athletes can feel comfortable confiding. According to the organization, these confidants are more likely to be trainers and team physicians rather than coaches or peers. This gets down to the importance of erasing stigma.

“There’s a stigma there, and they still don’t want to seek help,” said Margot Putukian, the head team physician at Princeton University.

Putukian worked with the NFL on establishing a return-to-play policy for athletes with concussions, giving her insight to the ins and outs of the sporting world when it comes to health. According to Putukian, many college athletes view mental health issues like depression as obstacles to be conquered alone. And when they can’t manage it, they see failure – as well as the illness itself – as a sign of weakness. This stigma isn’t dissipating – yet.

Building support
NATA has significant backing for its initiative, especially within the National College Athletics Association, which is important when it comes to reaching out to players, coaches and college health specialists. Thomas Schwenk, M.D., the dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Reno, has studied mental illness among athletes before, and he noted that it can be very difficult to convince them that having a mental illness is OK and not a sign of weakness. When it comes to care, Schwenk noted that athletes may not be enthusiastic. Sometimes, framing mental healthcare as a more holistic measure is a better alternative. This is equally important whether the depression or illness stems from sports-related stress or other issues.

According to Timothy Neal, chair of the task force for NATA and assistant director of athletics for sports medicine at Syracuse University, it’s important to make sure that athletes don’t feel they’re losing their identities, either. Many college athletes make their sport an enormous part of who they are, and when mental illness jeopardizes that, it can be immensely isolating.

Raising awareness
According to recent studies, USA Today noted, the rate of mental illness is twice as high for adults between ages 18 and 25 as it is for those age 50 or older. As a result, statistics indicate that the probability of college athletes on campus with mental illness is a “virtual certainty,” said NATA.

According to NATA, athletic departments can start improving mental health in campus sports by tracking it during physicals. Keeping data in secure mental health EHR software can help trainers and doctors flag concerns and help athletes find the help they may need sooner rather than later. And NATA stresses the importance of patient confidentiality. Removing a stigma doesn’t mean advertising mental illness, after all, and the right behavioral health EHR software can provide the protection players want.