My Mission of Mental Health Programs for All Collegiate Athletes; Which College Athletic Departments Responded with Successful Models of Mental Health Programming
By, Betsy Cutler M.Ed.
About 3 years ago I was troubled, as a sports fan and a mom, at fellow college alumnae’s grossly negative responses on social media to missed free throw shots by one of our basketball players. In a press conference a few days later, his coach refenced the posts and how it had affected his team and specifically this player. Coach was angry and made it clear that fans are not to take a loss out on the team. Coach reported the player woke up before dawn several times after the posts to practice free throws before breakfast. His response gravely concerned me on how detrimental social media can be to our college athletes, this young man felt he needed to change his practice pattern in a response to social media outbursts on his performance. This was a 20-year-old that’s playing a game, he’s someone’s son, he could be my son. As an avid sports fan with a background in psychology it made me question what are college athletic departments doing to support the mental health of their athletes. This student athlete obviously was so affected by the social media response that he added hours of extra practice to an already over scheduled routine. I found myself both angry at the situation but also motivated to do something about it. As I began to dig into what colleges have for mental health programs and protocols I was astounded to learn there really is no consistency across athletic departments. This was the beginning of my quest to make collegiate athlete mental health my mission.
With my new charge in hand I went back to school for my Master’s. I immersed myself into research on the topic as well as have begun collecting my own data. I have been given access to some programs to better understand the students’ needs and direction in which athletic departments are heading. Below are the outcomes of a 2-yearlong investigation to better facilitate college athlete mental well-being.
Over the last decade emphasis has grown around the Mental Health of our college athletes, unfortunately due to highly publicized traumas or tragedies. Since then, there has been an uptick in research on various aspects of the student athlete. That being said more is still needed regarding their mental health but access to student athletes is at a premium, for many reasons; athletic departments monitor how much time athletes can give to extra expectations and they also are protective of their departments’ reputations. There are, however, athletic departments that are in-tune with the growing need for athlete mental health and are providing access, limited as it may be, this access will remain pivotal in creating sustainable programs to improve their athlete’s mental health.
This access provides research which makes it better to map out what their Student Athlete’s (SAs) are dealing with as well as what are the barriers that prevent them from seeking mental health help. The top 3 barriers are; stigma, athlete time and athlete illiteracy in mental health knowledge. Studies vary on the levels of stigma a college athlete perceives about seeking mental health, more research needs to be done on this barrier. The biggest stigma barrier is that athletes do not want to go into campus counseling centers. Through conversation with several athletes, they would avoid the campus counseling center at all costs. But if they really needed help they would acquiesce but would do whatever they could to minimize anyone on campus seeing them from going in. One student athlete I spoke with, Maggie B, stated that “she would make appointments at the earliest time on Friday mornings knowing that most other colleges students wouldn’t be up at that time.” One university I spoke to said their SAs, when sent to the campus counseling center, may have to wait 6 weeks before getting a therapeutic appointment. So, if they go to the campus center they may not even be seen for several weeks.
Many college athletic departments are utilizing collaborations with their campus mental health departments to implement mental well-being training; mindfulness and group sessions specific to athletes, which instructs them on how to channel stress into a productive positive athletic experience. All of this is a huge step forward from where athletic departments were even a decade ago. But we need to narrow the focus on building mental health programming, which is why it is important to understand current research on SA barriers to seeking help. With this knowledge college athletic departments can build programs based on what the athletes say they need.
Probably the biggest barrier for SAs is time. College athletes’ time is at a premium. If they are in season they have almost every minute accounted for, between; practice, classes, tutoring, work-out sessions and eating. They are really stretched thin on availability to seek the mental health they need. The SA time issue can further be broken down into two barriers; proximity to mental health help and times when that help is available. Athletes’ time throughout the day is spoken for, most of their available time is during evenings and perhaps a random weekend. In regards to proximity, athletes spend a majority of their time in the athletic village that houses all the additional elements of being an SA. Most colleges have the training facility, athletic advising and coaches’ offices located in a central location; The Athletic Village. This provides an athlete ease of access to all the additional essential benefits of being an athlete. If the campus counseling center is across campus and isn’t open in the evenings then both proximity and availability are both issues to SAs seeking mental health.
The third barrier; illiteracy, is the least focused on but it is slowly being addressed. This barrier is all about educating our athletes. They are oblivious as to what is the continuum of mental health care. What is a sign of “expected stress as an athlete” verses what is a sign of something more dangerous, which could require immediate intervention. SAs don’t know the protocol for seeking help. Confidentiality is of the utmost importance to SAs, they want to know when they talk it’s protected. They don’t know who is the safe person to talk to on their campus other than their coach. Most SAs would rather not talk to their coaching staff for fear of retribution or penalty on their paying time. Actual education on signs and symptoms of mental health issues are minimal. It’s understandable athletic departments want to handle such knowledge with care hoping to not acerbate a student athlete who may already be experiencing mental health issues but the majority of athletes are clueless as to what constitutes mental health issues or what needs to get reported to get proper help.
So, the question becomes what can college athletic departments do to mitigate these barriers? The answer is multi-layered. First mental health professionals need to be IN the athletic village. This model eliminates 2 of the barriers described above: stigma and time. Studies are showing that athletes are less judgmental of each other seeking help, their perceived stigmas are in relation to the population of non-athletes on campus. As for addressing the time barrier, offering a mental health professional in the athletic village tackles both proximity and availability. Secondly, we need to provide for our SAs good information on actual signs and symptoms of various mental health issues as well as specific directions on how to access mental health professionals in their athletic community. In regards to illiteracy, university Sport Psychology professionals provide time to teams, helping them prepare for their performance and offer training on how to be a better athlete, mentally. This too is a vital part of being a successful student athlete, but the focus of this article is what can we do better for the student athlete’s mental health. This barrier is the one that will require more careful consideration as well as time from the athlete. We can only hope that as the other barriers are mitigated this barrier will slowly be brought down as well.
Colleges that Get It
I’ve had the opportunity to meet and analyze how 3 programs are responding to the needs of their college athletes. At Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) under the tutelage of Athletic Director, Ed McLaughlin, they have added a part time Sports Psychologist, Dr. Dana Blackmer. Dr. Blackmer is a licensed clinical psychologist, which was part time therapist in the campus counseling center, approached the athletic department about being available to the athletes at the university. This began a direct relationship between the athletic department and the campus counseling center. Dr. Blackmer was provided office space within the athletic village which provided close proximity for the athletes. In July of 2016, Dr. Blackmer was named Director of Sport Psychology and allots 50% of his time to the athletic department. Dr, Blackmer is trained both as a sport psychologist and clinical psychologist and provides professional expertise in both areas, he reports more than half of his time is utilized in individual therapy.
At Virginia Tech, they have also provided a model of bringing mental health to the athlete. The Director of Sport Psychology there is Dr. Gary Bennett. Bennett has been at VT for 22 years. He is trained both as a sport psychologist and clinical psychologist. His office can be found in the training facility, where he can walk through the halls and speak to the athletes, providing the opportunity for the athletes to get to know him which allows him to foster a relationship of trust. Dr. Bennett provides both sport psychology as well as clinical therapy. This portion of the Sport Psychology Department (SPD) has grown so much that Virginia Tech athletics has added another part-time mental health professional.
One university on the forefront of collegiate athlete mental health is the University of Texas-Austin. In a tour of their facility and their athletic mental health component, I found they also have embraced the concept of bringing mental health to their athletes. In June of 2016, they created a mental health program which is housed in their training facility. Their mental health professional is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Ashley Wallace. Ms. Wallace has an open-door policy where if she is not in a session, an athlete can and does stop by, it may be to address an issue or may be just to say hello. She goes to team meetings, practices and games. By doing this, she fosters a trust from the athletes, which is important for them to address mental health issues in themselves and their teammates. University of Texas-Austin furthering their commitment to SA mental well-being added Dr. Emmett Gill in January of 2017 as the Director Student-Athlete Wellness and Personal Development. Dr. Gill is a nationally recognized proponent of athlete mental health, his addition to the program helped to create wellness training, including mental health programming to better support UT athletes.
I am encouraged when I see universities listening not only to the research but their student athletes as well. There also needs to be emphasis on educating the SAs on how mental distress can affect their life and what it looks like to seek help on their specific campus. In regards to SA mental health literacy, if we educate our athletes as to what behaviors are signs of issues as well as make it clear on how to seek help, I think we will find the number of athletes seeking help to rise but more importantly seeking help earlier on the mental health continuum.
These athletic department models have been so successful that their Sport Psychology departments are growing in use (several of these SPD’s were recently established). Due to demand within 1-2 years’ time they have already responded by adding more “in-house” therapy options. Hopefully illustrating different models of these institutions will convince other Athletic Administration’s to create and sustain an embedded Sports Psychology department.
As fate would have it the basketball player that I reference in the beginning became my colleague in graduate school. At the conclusion of our school year, I let him know his role in why I began my journey. I wanted him to know that even though that was a tough situation he was in hopefully there can be a positive outcome. So, I continue my mission to research, advocate and educate our collegiate athletes and their athletic departments. This will take time but hopefully highlighting this growth will open the eyes of other athletic departments across the country, if you bring the professionals to the athletes they will absolutely take advantage of the resources.
.Betsy Cutler, M.Ed. 2017, is recent graduate VCU’s Center for Sport Leadership, focusing on SA Mental Health. She is currently conducting SA Mental Health research.