Prioritizing Mental Health in Athletics

We are taught to endure, which makes it so much more difficult to seek help.
— Niki Rybko, Wellesley’s Director of Sports Medicine and Wellbeing

May is Mental Health Awareness month. This is an important topic across athletics and especially in college athletics where we see a huge impact, need and emphasis around mental health on campuses in general today. And because of that, there has been a spotlight on the topic of mental health and the best practices for tackling, addressing and supporting such an important subject.

I wrote on this topic a year ago this month. How far have we come since then?

The truth is we are still a long way from solving the issues around athletes and mental health. However, there are more initiatives and more resources put towards this effort across the board. Funding has also stepped up a notch in particular within college athletics.

The NCAA is putting forth more efforts to research, fund and address key issues around mental health and college athletics. They also still have their handbook on mental health for student-athletes. These are great initial steps taken by the NCAA -- an organization that should be taking a leading role in supporting this effort.

More students (in general) are also seeking help or counseling around stress, anxiety and depression. Schools are also looking for and supplying additional resources to support the specific needs that athletes have regarding mental health, as they can differ from a traditional student on campus. In fact, in the last week I have come across at least two new job posts for full-time positions directly IN athletic departments across the country for student-athlete mental health counselor positions. This shows that there isn’t just a need, but that it’s a big enough need for it to fill a full-time position within the department -- something that didn’t exist or receive attention before.

The NCAA is also making a larger effort to support schools that want to sponsor health and wellness initiatives around mental health. For example, Wesley College held in multiple sessions throughout the year for student-athletes, coaches and athletic administration to learn more about mental health and supporting athletes. The program was sponsored by the NCAA and primarily focused on outlining emergency action plans, screening, referrals and educational resources.

In addition, professional sports leagues are tackling this issue more directly. The NFL Players Trust is getting better at supporting their players and former players through purposeful programming and the marketing of its programs. For example, this month, they launched a new initiative focused on it -- primarily highlighting key issues and all their available resources on mental health for the NFL player audience.

Additionally, the topic of mental health in general has more awareness -- thus is starting to bring  a certain level of conversation, comfort and support around it for today’s athletes. Individuals like Daniel Carcillo, Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt, Kris Boyd and others are among those speaking up and taking action.

In summary, everyone is getting better at addressing mental health in sports. When I look back at where things are from even a year ago… there is more awareness, more programs, more support and more athletes are talking about it. This helps to normalize it and allows others that might be struggling to ask for help or support.

And while there’s still a long way to go, there is no silver bullet that can completely address this need. It takes a lot of little efforts across a lot of different areas to address it and ultimately to make an impact.