May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an occasion to emphasize the importance of what has become a prevalent issue across the country. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. The most recent survey data from NCAA research indicates that college athletes and coaches have mental health conditions similar to those of the general public.
According to an NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study released last year, the number of student-athletes reporting mental health concerns is 1.5 to two times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, the NCAA Coach Well-Being Study reported 40% of head coaches felt mentally exhausted on a near-constant basis.
"The data illustrate what we hear from student-athletes, coaches and athletics department personnel nearly every day: Mental health concerns are real, and they impact everybody," NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline said. "It's imperative on all of us to keep talking about the issues to destigmatize what it means to address your mental health and lift up those voices who are brave enough to do so."
Student-athlete mental health
As a follow-up to two student-athlete well-being studies conducted in 2020, NCAA research collaborated with the Sport Science Institute and the national Student-Athlete Advisory Committees in all three divisions to design and administer an NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study in fall 2021. The survey, which was released in May 2022, examined the experiences of 9,808 college athletes.
Respondents reported elevated rates of mental exhaustion and anxiety. Mental health concerns were highest among demographic subgroups commonly displaying higher rates of mental distress (e.g., women, student-athletes of color, those identifying on the queer spectrum and those reporting family economic hardship).
Relating to the support student-athletes receive from coaches, teammates and campus personnel, the survey found that:
- Two-thirds of student-athletes indicated knowing where to go on campus for mental health concerns.
- A majority (56%) reported knowing how to help a teammate experiencing a mental health issue.
- Fewer than half (47%) felt they would be comfortable personally seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.
- Sixty-three percent of student-athletes felt their teammates take mental health concerns of fellow teammates seriously.
- More than half (53%) reported that coaches take mental health concerns of their student-athletes seriously.
- Half of student-athletes think that mental health is a priority for their athletics department.
Among the student-athletes in the sample who were considering transferring, respondents identified mental health as an important reason for doing so, with 61% of female athletes and 40% of male athletes considering their mental health as part of the decision.
Coach mental health
The national office examined mental health among coaches in its NCAA Coach Well-Being Study, which was released in January. The survey canvassed more than 6,000 head and assistant coaches across all three NCAA divisions and found mental health to be a critical issue.
One of the main themes identified in the survey was that coaches have felt substantial and unique pressures in their jobs over the past several years, manifesting in high levels of stress and mental exhaustion. Similar to student-athletes and the U.S. population at large, many coaches report relatively high rates of mental health difficulties. Contributing factors include pandemic-related circumstances, roster management challenges, an evolving transfer landscape, concerns about their job and athletics department budgets, and dealing with personal situations (e.g., financial worries, child care challenges). One-third of coaches reported mental exhaustion, feelings of being overwhelmed by all they had to do, and considerable sleep difficulties.
Young coaches in particular reported higher rates of mental health concerns, with coaches 40 years old or younger reporting higher rates than coaches over 40. Forty-six percent reported near-constant mental exhaustion, as compared with 31% in older generations. Additionally, similar to what we see in the student-athlete population, higher rates of mental health concerns were reported among women; those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color; and those on the queer spectrum.
The survey also found that coaches are more concerned than ever about student-athlete mental health and how they can provide support. More than 80% of coaches reported spending more time discussing mental health with student-athletes than they did before the pandemic. These coaches also indicated that the top issue facing the team they coach was supporting student-athlete mental health.
Mental health resources
If you are feeling isolated or facing other mental health challenges, please seek help through your campus health center or other campus resources devoted to mental health. Campus practitioners can also reference the NCAA's mental health educational resources.
Stay tuned to ncaa.org for more on mental health topics throughout Mental Health Awareness Month.