Mental health issues remain on minds of student-athletes

As a follow-up to two NCAA student-athlete well-being studies conducted in 2020, student-athletes continue to report elevated levels of mental health concerns.

The data indicated 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 COVID-19 pandemic. However, student-athletes reported lower levels of hopelessness in fall 2021 than in the first year of the pandemic.

The Association-wide survey, which was open from Nov. 17-Dec. 13, had responses from over 9,800 student-athletes. It was designed by NCAA research in collaboration with the NCAA Sport Science Institute and the Division I, II and III Student-Athlete Advisory Committees.

This study did not measure student-athlete responses relative to the overall college student population, which is dealing with these mental health issues, as well.

When responding to mental health support questions, 69% of women’s sports participants and 63% of men’s sports participants agreed or strongly agreed that they know where to go on campus if they have mental health concerns.

Under the NCAA constitution, each member school is charged with facilitating an environment that reinforces physical and mental health within athletics by ensuring access to appropriate resources and open engagement with respect to physical and mental health.

But when asked if they would feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus, less than half of women’s sports and men’s sports participants answered that they would agree or strongly agree with that statement (48% and 46%, respectively).

Continuing outreach efforts on campus is one way to try to change the disconnect between knowing where to go if mental health issues arise and feeling comfortable seeking that assistance.

“A lot of what influences the direction on this topic is what sort of conversations are happening on a campus surrounding mental health,” said Scott Hamilton, a mental health clinical counselor at DePauw. “Are there groups on campus, whether through the athletics department or through counseling services, using their voice to help reduce the stigma?”

Hamilton is also the coordinator of student-athlete mental health at DePauw. In that role, Hamilton has witnessed firsthand how student-athletes’ attitudes can change.

He said it is fascinating to conduct mindfulness training or psychological flexibility training with a team.

“Within a week or two, you start to see some familiar faces show up at the counseling center,” said Hamilton, who has worked at DePauw for 12 years. “When college campuses are willing to have open conversations about the importance of mental health, taking care of yourself mentally can ease the apprehension of student-athletes seeking help.”

The Sport Science Institute provides health and safety resources to college athletes, coaches, athletics administrators and campus partners. The mental health educational resources include a review of best practices, data and research and summits and task forces.     

The survey included a question about teammates taking mental health concerns of one another seriously. Sixty-five percent of women’s sports participants and 58% of men’s sports participants agreed or strongly agreed that they did. Along those lines, 56% of both men’s and women’s sports participants reported that they knew how to help a teammate experiencing a mental health issue.

When asked whether they thought their mental health was a priority to their athletics department, 55% of men’s sports participants and 47% of women’s sports student-athletes agreed or strongly agreed.

When asked whether their coaches took their mental health concerns seriously, 59% of the men’s sports participants agreed or strongly agreed, and 50% of the women’s sports participants did so.

Mental health concerns during the pandemic

Mental health concerns remained highest among student-athlete demographic subgroups commonly displaying higher rates of mental distress (women, student-athletes of color, those identifying on the queer spectrum and those reporting family economic hardship).

This survey, along with the previous two surveys, asked participants whether they felt mentally exhausted, experienced sleep difficulties, felt overwhelming anxiety, felt sad, felt a sense of loss or felt things were hopeless.

The largest percentage point decrease was seen among women’s sports respondents with regards to feeling very lonely or hopeless.

Sixteen percent of the women’s sports participants said they felt very lonely constantly or most every day, a drop of 5 percentage points from the fall 2020 survey. Ten percent of women’s sports respondents reported feeling things were hopeless, compared with 16% who responded that way in the previous survey.

Thirty-eight percent of those in women’s sports and 22% of the men’s sports participants reported feeling mentally exhausted constantly or most every day, the most common concern reported.

Academic experiences

Student-athletes expressed more optimism about their ability to keep up with and pass their fall 2021 courses as compared with spring and fall 2020.

Half of the student-athletes were pleased about their ability to find balance between academics and extracurricular activities, including athletics. Self-reported balance was higher among men’s sports athletes (56%) than women’s sports athletes (47%).

Factors regarding transferring

Since the Division I governance structure changed the one-time exception transfer rules to include baseball, football, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s ice hockey before the 2021-22 academic year, transfers have become a hotter topic with media and fans.

Eight percent of all student-athlete respondents indicated that it was likely they would transfer at some point during the 2021-22 academic year.

Mental health (61% women’s sports participants, 40% men’s sports participants), conflict with a coach or teammates (56% women’s sports participants, 34% men’s sports participants) and playing time (34% women’s sports participants, 36% men’s sports participants) were the most cited reasons for contemplating transfers, among those considering doing so at some point in the year.

Race and gender equity

Student-athletes continue to volunteer in their communities, take part in social and civic engagement activities and learn more about injustices on their own.

Eighty-four percent of women’s sports respondents and 78% of men’s sport respondents said they occasionally or frequently performed volunteer work. Two-thirds of the men’s and women’s sports participants said they occasionally or frequently discussed politics.

Regarding racial justice engagement over the prior six months, 81% of women’s sports participants and 73% of men’s sports participants took an active role in learning more about race or racial justice on their own. More than 60% of both women’s and men’s sports participants said they had conversations with teammates focused on race or racial justice.

In gender equity engagement, 72% of women’s sports participants and 56% of men’s sports participants reported actively trying to learn more about gender equity on their own. Fifty-eight percent of women and 46% of men occasionally or frequently had conversations with teammates focused on gender equity.

Educational resources

Student-athletes were most likely to indicate a desire for educational resources on tax and financial literacy; career planning; navigating name, image and likeness opportunities; and professional opportunities in sport.

Fifty percent of the women’s sports participants and 49% of the male sports participants wanted more resources on tax literacy and education.

In regard to navigating NIL opportunities, 42% of the men’s sports participants and 39% of the women sports participants said they wanted more educational resources.

Forty-one percent of the men’s sports participants and 35% of the women’s sports respondents wanted resources regarding professional opportunities in their sport.