NCAA Series Highlights Athlete Mental Health Stories

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The NCAA recently released updated research on the well-being of student-athletes that illustrates some of their mental health concerns. To talk about what this means for college sports, the NCAA Social Series hosted a conversation about the topic with Dr. Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer; Robin Scholefield, director of culture, well-being and sport psychology at Southern California; and Prim Siripipat, host of "The Next Chapter" podcast and former tennis player at Duke.

"I think that the NCAA has done a great job at sort of breaking down those barriers amongst sport administration," Scholefield said. "But we are at a point of needing to understand how to further integrate this by looking at the environments within which our student-athletes exist and addressing them more environmentally."

The NCAA has developed several educational resources, including "Mental Health Best Practices: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness (PDF)." The resource was designed with input from a diverse group of member and industry voices to help schools support and address the mental health needs of their student-athletes. However, the recent survey indicates schools can improve the way they communicate about mental health resources.

"Even though many mental health resources are available at member schools, there are still student-athletes who are not aware of these resources," Hainline said. "That tells us the member schools can do a better job of letting athletes know, 'Look, this is what we're doing to foster an environment that destigmatizes mental health care seeking and improves overall mental well-being.'"

The recently released data indicated the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play a major role in student-athlete mental well-being. Rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression have seen little change since fall 2020 and remain 1.5 to two times higher than identified before the pandemic.

"Student-athletes are so goal-oriented, and they have this structure, this somewhat protective structure … that structure was taken away," Hainline said. "As a society we're seeing COVID had a dramatic impact on the mental and physical health and well-being of our society at large, but there's no question it also impacted negatively our student-athletes."

"It was hitting everybody across the board because we had to create a new norm," Siripipat said. "When you're talking about the student-athlete population, when your purpose, and for many of them it is sport, and when your outlet and when your vehicle and your social support and your identity is entirely taken away, which is through sport, it makes a lot of sense about why this house completely collapsed. Sport is oftentimes the foundation that holds so many of these athletes up."

NCAA legislation requires member schools to make mental health educational materials, services and resources available to their student-athletes throughout the year. These should be consistent with the best practices document.

Other resources developed by the NCAA include the final report from the NCAA Diverse Student-Athlete Mental Health and Well-Being Summit (an event that convened industry experts and stakeholders to discuss the specific mental health challenges facing student-athletes of color and possible avenues to address those issues); a mental health workshop planning toolkit; and interactive modules for student-athletes, coaches and administrators.

Following the Diverse Student-Athlete Mental Health and Well-Being Summit, the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports commissioned a Mental Health Advisory Group to recommend updates to existing NCAA mental health materials. The group includes membership representatives, student-athletes and industry experts.

For more on student-athlete mental health, check out the latest NCAA Social Series on YouTubeSpotifyApple Podcasts or SoundCloud.

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