By Ken Reed

As Shalise Manza Young pointed out in a recent column for Yahoo! Sports, five NCAA college athletes have died by suicide in just the last two months.

One young person committing suicide is a tragedy. Five promising young student-athletes with bright futures taking their own lives in such a short timespan is a tragedy that’s simply beyond words.

Athletics has always been primarily about the physical. Run faster, jump higher, throw harder, shoot better, etc. Sports practices are 99% about physical skill development. Traditionally, the sports culture’s way of handling mental and emotional issues is to ignore them. The mantra has long been “Suck it up!” 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 and endangers their spot on the team.

Well, that doesn’t work. It never did. You stuff things down inside and at some point there needs to be a release. For some it can be violent behavior. For others, it’s domestic abuse or sexual assault. Others develop anxiety disorders. And some, unfortunately, become depressed and suicidal.

From the time young boys and girls first start playing sports (typically, around four or five years old), very little attention is give to the mental aspects of being an athlete. Coaches rarely talk about dealing with pressures unique to athletes; the constant comparisons to others, high — sometimes unrealistic — expectations in an endeavor in which failure is a constant companion and people are in the stands constantly judging you.

I played multiple sports growing up and two sports in college and not once — not a single time — did a coach ever talk to me individually, or as part of a team, about mental health, dealing with the pressures of sports, how to maintain confidence during times of failure, etc. Not once did a coach ask me how things were going in the rest of my life — academically, socially, at home, etc. I heard coaches say things like “Toughen up!” after making mistakes during practices but not once did they ever say how to do that. When it came to physical strength, coaches would say “Hit the weight room!” and sometimes even provide a strength training program. But mental skills development was basically nonexistent.

Fortunately, when it comes to the mental game in sports, things are better these days than when I played. Sports psychology is a burgeoning field. But the problem is most sports psychologists focus on performance psychology only, i.e., how to deal with anxiety in the athletic arena in order to improve performance on the field, court, ice, track, etc. Very few of them dig into, in any serious way, what else is going on in an athlete’s life besides their sports participation.

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.

“One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues, but what is unique about the student-athlete is they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue,” says Timothy Neal, a member of the NCAA task force on mental health and wellness and an assistant professor at Concordia University Ann Arbor.

Top-level athletes tend to be driven to be perfect in all they do — on and off the field. Perfectionism has been shown to be a leading cause of depression, and thus, suicide. I’ve never heard a coach, or sports psychologist for that matter, talk about dealing with perfectionism in athletes.

Because of the “just suck it up” mentality in sports, athletes tend to bottle up emotions and mental health struggles more than the average person.

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.

“I liken the awareness and management of mental health issues in student-athletes to where we were with concussion awareness and management about 10 to 15 years ago,” Neal said. “The landscape, in my opinion, is a little behind.”

That has to change immediately. We can’t afford to be “a little behind” any longer when it comes to athlete mental health. The NCAA was originally formed to protect the health and wellness of student-athletes. When it comes to mental health they are failing miserably.

“[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,” says Laura Sudano, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University.

Here’s the message all college athletes need to hear: It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.

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.

One of the best mental health programs on college campuses was started at Oregon State University. It’s called Dam Worth It. It was started by two student-athletes who were grieving about the loss of teammates to suicide. 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’s goal is to end the stigma around mental health for athletes and others.

Dam Worth It began with mental health awareness events at sporting events, short mental health documentary videos, and a variety of presentations and workshops. Dam Worth It team members eventually secured grants from the Pac-12 Conference, which helped the Dam Worth It model gradually spread to other college campuses in the conference.

Dam Worth It has expanded since those days and is now called Dam Worth It Co. The mission is to develop Dam Worth It branches on the campuses of colleges and universities across the country.

Dam Worth It’s mission is to let student-athletes who might be struggling with mental health challenges know that vulnerability, while scary, builds connections and those connections help you build mental and emotional strength.

“While Dam Worth It has received recognition in the forms of awards, grants, and media attention, the true value has come out of the people saying thank you, and the stories of strength. We are slowly hearing the narrative shift to ‘It’s okay to not be okay’ and that alone has made this all worth it,” said Taylor Ricci, co-founder of Dam Worth It.

The NCAA talks about mental health for athletes but very little is actually being done. If the NCAA was smart, they would give Dam Worth It a multi-million dollar grant to continue the great work they are doing and to help them reach college athletes across the country.

When it comes to dealing with the mental health challenges of college athletes, Dam Worth It is walking the talk. Something the NCAA has yet to do.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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