By Ken Reed
Anxiety and depression are common mental health issues among college students. In fact, according to Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, one in three college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions.
College athletes certainly aren’t immune from these mental health challenges. In fact, in addition to the to the academic and social pressures all college students face, college athletes also face the pressure to perform at a high level on the court, field or ice.
Moreover, the stigma about admitting mental health challenges is typically a bigger issue for athletes than the rest of the student body. Athletes are expected to be “tough” – physically and mentally. They are often pushed, overtly or subtly, to play through injuries. Similarly, athletes showing doubt or anxiety of any kind are often told to “suck it up” and get tougher mentally. As such, given this type of culture, athletes often feel that if they admit to struggling with a mental or emotional problem it shows a weakness in character on their part.
That mindset is detrimental to the mental wellbeing of athletes because athletes are less likely to seek help for mental health issues than general students. In a study of University of Michigan athletes, only 10 percent of athletes with mental health conditions reached out for help with mental challenges compared to 30 percent of college students in general.
“[Athletes] are very good at all of the muscular things, the physical stuff, [but] the mental health aspect, I feel, is not very highlighted or taken care of,” said Laura Sudano, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University.
Michigan’s Eisenberg, who also holds positions with the school’s Institute for Social Research and Depression Center, said a research study of college athletes revealed that 63 percent of student athletes reported having had an emotional or mental health issue that affected their athletic performance in the four weeks prior to the survey.
Everyone involved in sports – athletes, coaches, trainers, athletic directors, etc. – need to fully appreciate the fact mental health issues negatively impact a student-athlete’s entire life, including sports performance. While it’s fully understood that physical injuries negatively impact sports performance, the same isn’t true when it comes to mental health challenges.
The good news is several universities have begun to take the issue of athlete mental health much more seriously. One of the most notable is Oregon State University’s Dam Worth It program. The name is a play on the school’s nickname (Beavers) as well as a call for anyone struggling with mental health issues to realize their self-worth and seek help when needed.
Dam Worth It was started by two Oregon State athletes, Taylor Ricci a gymnast and Nathan Braaten, a soccer player. They came together over a cup of coffee to share the pain they were feeling over both having recently lost a teammate to suicide. They also talked about their own mental health struggles. They were vulnerable with each other. And because of that they connected, not just as fellow athletes, but also as fellow human beings.
And from that connection, an idea about how to make a difference sprung up. They decided to turn the pain of losing someone they loved into something positive. Mental health and suicide needed to be openly talked about. The stigma had to end. They left that coffee chat fired up to help their fellow athletes find ways to talk about how they were really feeling.
Their theme became “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.” They stressed that vulnerability was a human strength, not a weakness.
Dam Worth It began with mental health awareness events at sporting events, short mental health documentary videos, and a variety of presentations and workshops. Ricci and Braaten and their Dam Worth It committee eventually secured grants from the Pac-12 Conference, which helped the Dam Worth It model spread to other college campuses.
The Dam Worth It campaign has been featured in Sports Illustrated and USA Today. Also, NBC Sports and the Pac-12 Network have done stories on the campaign and its impact. This month, Ricci and Braaten launched a national non-profit organization, the Dam Worth It Company, to take their message and resources across the nation (damworthit.co).
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.
More athletes need to hear that message – especially those on college campuses. It’s okay to be dealing with a mental health issue. Just like it’s okay to be treating a torn ACL, or a separated shoulder.
Ultimately, the Dam Worth It team wants all athletes to take off their happy-face masks and be more human. More real.
A worthy endeavor indeed.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a long-time member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
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Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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