We must talk about mental health in college athletics

Andrew Oslin, Content Creator

Collegiate student-athletes carry a rigorous workload and live in an environment structured around excellence, but leaving mental awareness out of the limelight has compromised their holistic well-being.

There is a scourge of silence surrounding mental wellness in college athletics. A 2016 study indicated that one in four college athletes shows signs of depression, and others provide numbers just as daunting. Given that over half a million athletes participate in 24 sports nationwide, this means that around 125,000 of them – our friends, neighbors, even coworkers – battle with mental health. Yet no one brings it up unless they are specifically encouraged to do so, which gives the impression that it is solely a problem for the few.

It seems contradictory. Athletes tend to prize their physical health and form close bonds with their teammates, so how could these same people fall short in the areas they dedicate themselves to maintaining?

College student-athletes follow a rigorous academic and athletic workload and must make time sacrifices if they are to complete everything that they are responsible for. They balance between practice, competitions, classes, assignments, social lives, outside jobs, and any other responsibilities they may have.

Student-athletes also experience rigid expectations for performance set by program standards, and self-imposed values like wanting to appear as a “strong” role model also contribute to this. The dilemma directly opposes the intentions and support of coaches and institutional staff.

By regulation of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), student-athletes must take at least 12 credits in a quarter or semester to retain full eligibility, which is generally three to four hours in class daily. Official practices can amount to four hours per day (Monday through Saturday) and 20 per week, typically occurring in the middle of the day, often before they finish all of their classes. This can cause athletes to have to rush from class to practice, and then back to class without a break.

Depending on the sport, morning sessions are mandatory, and weightlifting, cross training and other ancillary work is strongly recommended. This leaves even less time for athletes to finish schoolwork, let alone spend time with friends, a self-care act that we all know nourishes the soul. After all, as human beings, we are social creatures.

To make sense of the conundrum, athletes make a decision: either take easier classes, shortchanging one’s own education, or let self-care slide and work long, often late-night hours over the textbooks, well past a reasonable bedtime. A continual lack of sleep can cause athletes to lose their enthusiastic spark, eventually competing for the sake of a scholarship rather than for the enjoyment and enrichment of sport.

Of course, athletes choose to participate. It’s a lifestyle choice, and a positive one. But incoming recruits often choose their institution based on factors like scholarship amount and tuition, as costs rise ever farther from the reaches of a typical wage. Some simply don’t have time for extracurriculars, and paying off loans reduces debt in the future.

Several institutions have led the charge of mental health awareness by hosting events centered on its importance, incorporating wider-spread counseling, and partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). But many remain behind in this arena, and without normalizing mental health there will be no meaningful impact.

Let’s continue bringing support and self-care to our day-to-day conversations, something which will make its way around to every community and every athlete. Instead of solely expecting performance, we must talk about athletes’ mental health.

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