Want to know what's on the minds of collegiate student-athletes? Ask them. That's just what Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher did following the 2013-14 academic year, when he sought direction from MAC athletes regarding issues his office could better address. Their response steered the league to the national forefront of mental health awareness and promotion in the form of its recurring Mental Health Summit and Mental Health Awareness Week. This year, the MAC's third summit gathered dozens of student-athletes, coaches, administrators, faculty and medical experts to discuss the prevention of self-harm and suicide. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked Steinbrecher to open up about the conference's ongoing efforts.
How did athletes characterize mental health issues to you?
Things such as stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicides on campus, just a host of things, and it's reflective. And it was kind of the early warning flare, quite frankly, for something we're talking about in the context of intercollegiate athletics, yet mental health is an incredible issue across the entire collegiate populations. It's just something that's kind of exploded, and if you talk to schools, they would point to mental health as becoming a leading issue as to why kids don't continue in school — why they drop out. It's truly a public health issue.
Are student-athletes equipped to be tougher mentally than non-athletes, or does the added pressure of being an athlete make them even more susceptible to mental health issues?
I would avoid the word "tougher," to begin with. We talk an awful lot about the value-added things that participation in athletics brings. And perhaps it does bring skill sets or experiences that might help someone deal with certain situations. By the same token, if you have a mental illness, it's not because you're weaker than somebody else. You have an issue that needs to be addressed, just in the same way as if you have a sprained ankle or a broken bone or the flu. So, let's eliminate the stigma. Let's educate so we understand mental illnesses, and then identify ways in which those things can be addressed — be it through services within intercollegiate athletics, the institution or the community.
What kind of feedback are you receiving?
Feedback is incredibly positive. We have emails from parents who are appreciative of our programming in this area. And interactions with our various groups — whether its administrators, coaches, student-athletes — speak to how positive this program is. Where I get the biggest kick out of all of this is that it really emanated from our student-athletes, and they've taken ownership of it, so much so that we have a Mental Health Awareness Week on each of our campuses that is directed and driven by our various campus student-athlete advisory committees. It's a great way to shine a light on this issue and help eliminate the stigma and hopefully educate and help not only student-athletes but students in general to what's going on, what are the services available, where do you go if you want to talk to somebody and perhaps seek help. What I hear is, "Wow! Thank goodness we're talking about this, that I learned about this, that I know where to go when we think something's occurring or we think someone is in need of assistance."
What's the overarching message you want student-athletes to hear?
They're not alone. There's nothing to be ashamed of here, which goes back to the tagline our students developed — "It's okay to not be okay." You get into our Mental Health Awareness Week, you hear that a lot. Where can you seek assistance? Because we know for athletes to be the absolute best they can be when they are competing, they have to be at their very best physically and they need to be at their very best mentally. It all goes together.
Where do you go from here?
We continue to challenge ourselves in the office that this can't be a static program. It's not a one-time thing. It's something we have to keep the gas on and every year continue to make sure we're reinforcing, reinvesting where appropriate. You have a whole new crop of kids every year, so you have to remain dynamic with the program.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "MAC meets mental health challenge head on." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.