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How to Support Mental Health Wellness for Student-Athletes

By LifeStance Health on May 6, 2022

Mental Health Awareness Month gives us another reason to check on the state of our youth mental health, and student athletes in particular, who face a unique set of pressures.

Sports, and especially team sports, have many benefits for kids and student-athletes. Studies have consistently shown that kids who participate in sports make better grades, are more likely to go to college and stay more active and healthier later in life. There is no question that playing sports also creates a community and support system for kids outside of school and family, that helps them develop confidence, motivation, teamwork, and friendship. Sports and physical activity have shown to release endorphins, a hormone in the brain that alleviates pain and brings feelings of happiness.

Studies that showed the positive effects of playing sports dovetailed with increased parental investment on kids’ activities over the past forty years. From 1981 to 2021, the number of collegiate student-athletes has more than doubled to over 491,000. Along with all the usual college experiences, student-athletes deal with distinct pressures when compared with other students.

They need to shoehorn time for academics along with practice schedules, travel to competitions and other sport commitments. The 2019 NCAA Study: Understanding Our Student-Athletes showed that student-athletes spent 33 hours a week on athletics. Other stressors for student-athletes include on-field or on-court performance and risk of physical injuries.

Why Are Student-Athletes at Higher Risk for Mental Illness?

Collegiate athletes are just as susceptible, if not more so, to most mental health disorders. With demands for their time in academics, athletics, and social life at college, it can be a lot to juggle in their first time living away from home and family. College is a transitional time of navigating new friendships and developing a sense of belonging. These additional stressors can acerbate psychological vulnerabilities. Emergence of some mental illnesses coincide with the college years like bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia. Some mental illnesses, like bulimia, are more likely to develop in high achievers and those that strive for perfectionism.

Performance anxiety is more common among female student-athletes. The 2019 NCAA study found that early 50% of first year female student-athletes were “frequently overwhelmed” by all they had to do in the past year, compared to 24% of male student-athletes.

Social media presents unique challenges for student-athletes, some of whom arrive at college with a large social media following. The scrutiny of social media commentators can exacerbate performance anxiety, as well as provide an avenue for online bullying.

Signs a Student-Athlete Might Be Suffering from a Mental Illness

Mental health can also impact a student-athlete’s physical health through lack of focus, muscle tension, or underperformance. Some outwards signs of mental distress can include:

  • Being constantly tired or fatigued.
  • Changes in eating could indicate anxiety or eating disorder.
  • Excessive partying or alcohol could indicate substance abuse.
  • Decline in athletic performance could be due to a variety of reasons and may be a signal for help.
  • Changes in personality or behavior like missing practices or classes.
  • Lower grades and academic decline could require a change in their curriculum but can be anxiety or stress related.
  • Social withdrawal and isolation, which can be hard to assess with student-athlete living on-campus.
  • Injuries can create post-traumatic stress.

What Are the Most Common Mental Illnesses a College Athlete Might Face?

How to Support a Student-Athlete Who is Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis

It is important to remove the stigma that comes from discussing mental health issues in sports. It doesn’t help those motivational expressions in sports, including “putting on your game face” or “no pain, no gain” encourage student-athletes to sacrifice or ignore their mental well-being in order to win.

The good news is that awareness about the importance of mental wellness for athletes at all levels has increased. More kids entering college are likely to have worked with a sports psychologist at the high school level. Governing associations like the NCAA have provided mental health resources to student-athletes and their parents.

Parents and other adults working with student-athletes should check in with them at regular intervals about their mental well-being, separate from any conversation on academic or athletic performance. This provides a safe space for college athletes to express their feelings. Parents and sports team staff can also suggest that student-athletes take mental health breaks or incorporate meditation or affirmations into their daily routine to promote balance. More serious mental health concerns should be addressed by a sports psychologist who understands the mindset of an athlete and can help them achieve success in their sport without sacrificing their mental health.