NCAA and Student Athlete Mental Health: How to Make Help Accessible

Sarah Suddarth

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2021

In a previous article, I discussed the mental health crisis facing student athletes across the country. I called on the NCAA, individual universities, and all coaches to increase efforts to improve the overall health and wellness of their athletes. The stigma is slowly being tackled, making it more commonplace for athletes to speak out when they need help. But how can athletic departments make these services readily available and accessible for student athletes? The NCAA recommends a well-trained psychologist to be a part of athletic departments’ staff. There are, however, other models being utilized.

Why do we need these?

The NCAA admits that the role of sports psychology in college athletics has evolved much slower than the athlete’s needs. The struggles facing these young athletes in college were inherently not being met by the current institutions. When asked whether the NCAA takes responsibility regarding the mental health of student-athletes, Mary E. Wilfert, Associate Director of the NCAA Sport Science Institute, said, “No, intervention cannot come out of the national office … we are not a medical organization.”

Discussing the mental health of student athletes and taking real steps to address and prevent these issues are two very different things. The conversation has begun with force. Dr. Brian Hainline, the Chief Medical Officer of the NCAA declared mental health the number one health and safety concern for student athletes in 2013. FOX Sports also recently interviewed a sect of female student athletes to gauge the current climate of mental health in college athletics. A few of the women who participated in the interviews had accessed the on-campus psychological services, but all agreed that there existed a stigma against mental health amongst their fellow college athletes.

The three models

In 2014, the NCAA released mental health guidelines in a publication titled Mind, Body and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness. The guide discusses the psychological aspect of health and wellness for student athletes. In the guide, Hainline and other NCAA medical staff, share three ways an athletic department can follow the NCAA’s recommendations for providing student athletes mental health services.

The first guideline is to have a full-time athletics department sport psychologist on staff. This position would be filled by a licensed counseling psychologist with training in both physical education and/or sport psychology. The staff’s primary role would be to provide individual counseling for student athletes for things such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and performance related issues. The psychologist would also coordinate services for the athletes regarding substance abuse, eating disorders, drug testing, and general team building exercises. This sect of the department would ideally be housed within the sports medicine department but may be incorporated with athletic academic services. The primary goal of this model is for the staff psychologist to be as accessible to the student athletes as possible.

The second guideline is the part-time consultation model. This model requires an athletic department to involve an outside psychologist through a local counseling center. Ideally, this consultant would provide the same services as the full-time staff psychologist, with slightly less availability to the athletes. This model is ideal for athletic departments who lack funding to provide for an in-house position.

The third guideline is the referral model of services. The referral model specifies a local provider or counseling center to take student referrals for athletes who seek treatment or are identified as requiring services. One caveat with this model is that the services are available only to students who present as needing the services. The model does not provide education or coordinated services like the full-time or even part-time psychologist models. Although, the referral model is available for all athletic departments as it is the current method utilized for specialized medical doctors.

Which is best?

The NCAA is steadfast that the most immersive program is the best for providing comprehensive services to the student athletes. An immersive mental health program allows individual athletes to both seek help with personal issues, as well as provide regular programs that help teams with education and prevention around these issues.

Regardless of the model type, the overarching goal is to make the services accessible to the student athletes. During the FOX Sports interviewed previously mentioned, the female athletes were unanimous in that they were all equally unaware of any tangible NCAA mental health services. The Association as a whole is faced with a huge hurdle. While the NCAA is making large strides to implant programming and guidelines for athletic departments to confront these issues, it is important that student athletes be equally aware of these programs and their availability.