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Concerns about mental wellness of college athletes becoming a priority

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Maria Fabrizio
/
NPR
The NCAA and individual college athletics departments are making efforts to focus to the mental wellbeing of athletes.

Former and current student athletes have expressed the need for athletic conferences and divisions to focus on mental wellness among collegiate athletes. The importance of athletes’ mental health grew after three female student athletes across the United States took their lives in the last few weeks.

Major athletes like tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles showed people the value of mental health by opting out of their competitions as they wanted to protect their body and mind.

The American College of Sports Medicine says about 30% of female athletes and 25% of male athletes struggle with anxiety. The impact of injuries, overtraining and the pressure to perform are among the reasons athletes are prone to mental health disorders.

The NCAA Sport Science Institute and mental health organizations created a document called ‘Mental Health Best Practices’ to show athletic departments the best practices to help their student athletes. They say anxiety is the most common psychiatric problem among the athletes, showing symptoms like worry or obsession.

In the culture of sports, athletes are expected to be strong, stable and mentally tough, but that can also make it difficult for athletes to reach out. It’s believed only 10% of college athletes with known mental health conditions will seek help.

Christopher Bader is assistant athletic director and counselor at the University of Arkansas’ Mental Health and Performance. Bader says it is important to show the athletes that they are not alone nor the only ones who are struggling.

“I think any way to sort of lower that stigma around help seeking behavior and people, just general individuals not just student athletes, understanding that we can be self made but we don’t get there on our own,” Bader said in an interview with KUAR.

Natalie Shock is with the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, which created the program ‘Don’t Bear It Alone’ to organize monthly meetings where athletes have the opportunity to express their emotions. She thinks the whole country needs to overcome the sports culture stigma.

“The biggest hurdle we had to overcome when we started all of this was the stigma that, you know, ‘I’m an athlete, I’m tough, I don’t need help, it’s gonna show weakness if I ask for help.” Shock said.

The UCA Athletic Department is developing a culture to show athletes they're being cared for, Shock says, with coaches starting to do more activities with athletes aside from games and practices.

“We’re doing that stuff to show that it is not all about your sport and you’re not defined by your sport," she said, “and how well you do in your sport that’s not necessarily who you are.”

Social media has changed much about modern life, with the world of sports being no exception. Athletes can now interact with their fans through their social media accounts, while also promoting their games. The gap between the public and the player decreases, and people sometimes take that opportunity to send critiques or hate messages to the athlete.

Shock says she is happy she didn’t have to deal with social media while she played in college. She says people use social media to hate because it is easier to do from behind a keyboard.

“People are just stupid on social media, I mean they go after athletes like, 'You did this on purpose to make me look bad because you missed that groundball, or you dropped that ground ball, or you missed that shot.'” Shock said.

Sydnee Martin is a former University of Arkansas at Little Rock volleyball player and has coached several teams of different ages. She said that she sees her kids worry about likes and comments on TikTok, Instagram or Facebook.

“They’re definitely trying to search for that gratitude in social media and if they’re not getting it, I could see how that could have such an impact on what they think of themselves.” Martin said.

Martin said she feels like athletes sometimes need to hear how important they are through coaching. She said it is difficult for athletes not to be hard on themselves.

“A lot of people like to beat themselves up and like to push themselves to work harder,” she said, “but I try to teach my kids too that that is not the way to do things and it is okay to make mistakes.”

Martin hopes sharing mental health stories and breaking down the sports culture stigma will help other athletes find the strength to seek help, and help athletic departments find more resources.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t be afraid to try to reach out for help, because going to see a therapist or psychologist is not a bad thing.” Martin said, “It’s actually a great thing, because you’re doing it to help yourself."