Mental Health Support in the NCAA

Photo from JUM Athletics and JMU Softball

This week I have been thinking about the James Madison University softball program after the announcement that one of their star players had passed away. I remember watching Lauren Bernett as a freshman catcher last year in the college World Series. She was at the top of her game, on the biggest stage, yet was struggling with mental health. While the softball world mourns our loss, and this may feel like an isolated incident, it is not. Sadly, since the beginning of March, Lauren is the third student athlete to make headlines for taking their own life. Katie Meyer, a soccer player at Stanford was the first, then Sarah Shulze a runner at the University of Wisconsin, and now Lauren at JMU. My heart goes out to all of their family and friends during this difficult time.

I am concerned that these are the names we are hearing about in the news because they play Division I sports. What about the women playing at smaller colleges whose names we don’t know? I felt one student athlete passing too soon was too many. Three is a crisis and something needs to be done. 

While Katie, Sarah, and Lauren’s struggles were real, and I am sure family, coaches, teammates, and friends did their best to support, it is time for the NCAA to step in and use their resources to provide more mental health support for student athletes. Right now it is mainly on the universities to provide funding for counseling centers or sports physiologists. This is not enough. Mental health support for student athletes needs to be standardized, and as the major governing body of college athletics, the NCAA should be responsible and leading the way for change. Here are some ideas of tangible steps that can be taken immediately in the NCAA to support the mental health of student athletes. 

Provide coaches with resources and support– College athletes are generally between the ages of 18 to 22 years old, who are living away from home for the first time. They are legally adults, but are still adolescents, and NCAA coaches are on the front lines of supporting them during an intense period of growth. Athletes spend more time with their coaches than any other adult while they are in college, and coaches need to be equipped with knowing the signs of mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. To be adequately prepared, NCAA coaches need to be supported with professional development on mental health and also provided with counseling outlets of their own. The pressure to win and gain notoriety for their schools is heavy for coaches and athletes alike.

To become a coach in the NCAA, all coaches must pass a course on recruiting to become certified. There are other coaching courses that are required for different types of sports, but it would be an easy next step to require all coaches across all sports to take a course on mental health for certification. With a mandate like this, that is funded by the NCAA, and not placing the burden on individual schools, we could ensure that all coaches are receiving the same baseline information to help their athletes. Along with a certification, the NCAA could give incentives to coaches who create cultures that promote positive mental health. 

Mental health screenings– Mental health care is health care. Colleges spend a lot of money on their sports medicine facilities to keep their athletes physically healthy and ready to compete. Schools need to recognize that playing a college sport is more than just being physically fit, there is a huge mental side to every game. The same level of physical care to athletes should be applied to athlete mental health too. 

To play a college sport every NCAA athlete has to pass a yearly physical and fitness test. Adding a mental health screening to the physical exam could help college programs be proactive in supporting athletes who might be struggling. This screening would provide valuable information to the coach at the beginning of the season. From there, the athlete can be provided with the support needed to be successful. Early mental health support is proven to save lives. 

Mandated counseling hours– All student athletes are provided with academic support by being required to complete a certain amount of study hall hours during their season. First year athletes, transfer students, and students who are academically at risk, all have to complete study hall hours every week. This model of mandated study hall for academic support could be applied to counseling hours. First year and injured athletes are especially vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed and isolated. If they were required to check in with someone at least once, this could help alleviate some stress and at least they know what resources are out there to help them if they need it. I realize that no one likes being told what to do, and there could be push back, but requiring athletes to check in with a mental health professional could be a valuable introduction to the importance of self care. My hope is that after a session or two, athletes could feel the benefits of being supported professionally and see the benefits in their play. 

Encourage student athletes to major in sports psychology– Now is the time to become a sports psychologist. The more the sports world talks about mental health, the more mainstream it is becoming, and that is a first step. Right now mental health professionals have waiting lists for patients because so many people are seeking support. The field is growing and it needs more people joining and offering services. Many student athletes want to stay connected to sports after they graduate. Becoming a sports psychologist is a great way to still be involved, so let’s encourage student athletes to pursue a career in sports psychology. They have first hand experience of what it is like to deal with the pressure of performance and navigating team dynamics and those are skills that can be passed on as a sports therapist.  

The NCAA has been profiting off the free labor of student athletes for decades. This is beginning to change with new NIL opportunities and naming rights for the athletes to make money. With 18 to 22 year olds having the ability to profit off of their athletic accomplishments, they need more support than ever. College athletes have pressure to perform academically, athletically, and now to gain endorsements for profit. Let’s surround these athletes with guidance on all levels to ensure their success and a positive college experience prioritizing their mental health.

The NCAA has the resources to provide funding for mental health programming to all member schools. They need to step up to help. As a women’s sports fan, I never want to read headlines about college women taking their own lives too soon. Change is needed in order to ensure that this ends. We must demand that the NCAA takes steps to do that in Lauren, Katie, and Sarah’s memory. They are worth it and future athletes are too.

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