NCAA and Student Athlete Mental Health: How to Address the Crisis?

Sarah Suddarth

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2021

Student athletes across the nation are praised, admired, and in some cases, made famous for their athletic performances. Although, behind those athletes are young people dealing with the typical struggles of college and early adulthood. Student athletes face the pressure of recognition, high performance, and often unrealistic expectations of both physical and mental strength. The requirement for these young athletes to always be tough and perform competitively takes a toll on their mental health and the NCAA has just recently started to shed light on this grave problem.

Historic deficiencies in addressing mental Health issues

Mental health is an emerging concern in discussions surrounding healthy living as society has started to recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health. Although the stigma surrounding mental health is still largely a problem, this new perspective has made way for mental health services to be valuable and normalized. However, athletics have been slower to change than others in this regard. This reluctance is likely based on the old stigmas athletes are praised for such as their strength, among other things. This toughness is derived from their ability to push their physical limits in training,  their ability to get up after a hard hit, to their resilience to comeback after an injury. So, it should be no surprise that athletes struggle to admit that they too deal with mental health issues.

In May 2019, James Hudson, a football player at University of Cincinnati came forward about his mental health struggles and the lack of support offered by the NCAA. He stated on twitter, “Like many football players, I was afraid to speak up about my depression, not wanting to look weak.” He continued, “[c]learly mental wellbeing isn’t as important as playing time. The stigma is REAL.” Hudson’s situation is just one example of the pressure felt by many athletes and the anxieties they face to meet these standards.

The change in NCAA’s attitude

For a long time, student athletes’ requests for mental health services at universities were denied as the universities already had mental health services available to the general student population. However, these generalized services did not address the unique problems many collegiate athletes were facing. 35% of student athletes utilize mental health support as compared to only 16% of the general student population. Suicide is responsible for 7% of deaths of collegiate athletes. Student athletes face elevated levels of pressure and as such, require increased support, or at least as much support as is dedicated to their physical health.

In 2014, two student athletes took their own lives. Madison Holleran, a track and field athlete from University of Pennsylvania, and Kosta Karageorge, a wrestler and football player from University of Oregon, were collegiate athletes who many believe were failed by the system. Both of their situations are well known amongst student athletes and act as a sobering reminder to the many of those athletes who do not have the resources to address their struggles.

In January 2019, the Power Five Conferences of Division I College Athletics unanimously adopted legislation that guaranteed student athletes in these conferences access to mental health services and resources. The theme of the Learfield IMG College Intercollegiate Athletics Forum presented by Sports Business Journal in December 2019 was athlete wellness. In January 2020, the NCAA announced that mental health will be the key focus of this year’s convention. The overwhelming issue of mishandling of student athlete mental health by NCAA personnel, athletic directors, and coaches is finally being brought to the front of the conversation. These discussions are steps in recognition of this crisis that student athletes have been experiencing for decades.

What else should be done?

One would not force an athlete onto the field with a torn ACL. This begs the question of why would one force an athlete onto the field while he or she is facing a severe mental health issue? The historical stigma that still exists today is that “invisible” or “mental” injuries are more difficult to reconcile, but studies are clear that mental health issues have the same effect on athletic performance as physical injuries.

There are difficulties present in attempting to increase the amount of mental health services available to student athletes. When faced with the choice, it is much easier for an athletic director at a highly recognizable university to prefer to spend the money on fancy athletic facilities and flashy stadiums rather than invest in mental health specialists and education for the athletes and coaches. After all, the facilities and athletes’ presence themselves is what draws the fans in. While the former is used to dazzle recruits, the latter does not have the curb appeal, so it is likely not deemed as lucrative. Universities across the nation need to make a more concerted effort to invest in the things that will improve the struggling mental health of their athletes. The problem is severe, and the entire NCAA, including individual universities and coaches, need to do better to address the overall health and wellness of their athletes.