Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 25, 2022

A quiet crisis in college sports

By GRACE VAN ATTA | September 8, 2022

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COURTESY OF CHRIS DEVERS / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

College athletes may suffer from the pressure to both perform and balance their academic commitments.

Student-athletes across the nation are seeking more support for their mental health. In a recent NCAA survey, rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression have remained 1.5 to two times higher than pre-pandemic rates. 

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), around one in five adults experience a mental health condition at some point during their life. Among student athletes, however, approximately 30% of women and 25% of men report having anxiety. Only 10% of all student athletes with known mental health conditions seek help from a mental health professional. Furthermore, about 25% of elite athletes experience disordered eating, burnout, depression or anxiety.

Last spring, at least five college athletes across America took their own lives: Katie Meyer, Robert Martin, Jayden Hill, Sarah Shulze and Lauren Bernett. Their deaths have triggered widespread concern that colleges are not doing enough for their student-athletes. 

Recently, more former and current student-athletes are speaking up about mental health and college sports. In March, the Ohio State footballer Harry Miller announced his early retirement on Twitter due to his struggles with mental health.

“A person like me, who supposedly has the entire world in front of them, can be fully prepared to give up the world entire,“ he wrote. “This is not an issue reserved for the far and away. It is in our homes. It is in our conversations. It is in the people we love.”

Ari Miller, Assistant Director, Student Athlete Mental Health and Performance at the University shared his thoughts on the recent rise in college student-athlete suicides in an interview with The News-Letter

“It is important that we do discuss the student athlete experience and the mental health of student athletes competing at all levels,“ he said. “Coming out of a two-and-a-half year global pandemic and all of the stresses and pressure that a student-athlete has to endure just to play their sport, we are seeing a lot of depression, a lot of increased levels of anxiety and unfortunately some tragedies.”

Miller detailed resources provided by Hopkins for their athletes as well.

“We are currently starting year two of having an embedded professional that offers a wide range of services to student athletes… Specific to athletes, I offer mental performance sessions, I offer brief therapy, I work with teams and groups and offer consultation to coaches around mental health,” he said. “We’re also having all of our coaches go through mental health first aid certification.”

Miller described mental health first aid as a training to provide coaches with an understanding of mental health, mental illness, talking through individual warning signs, support systems, ways to have conversations and setting boundaries in order to give baseline knowledge of mental health.

He feels that there is a deep commitment within Hopkins Athletics to making the necessary changes to support student athletes’ mental health. Miller highlighted that having open communication, acknowledging the challenges that we’re facing and remaining present with student athletes is critical in addressing this mental health crisis. 

“Mental health and taking care of our mental health doesn’t just mean addressing difficult situations,“ he said. “Taking care of our mental health is what are our self-care routines each day, what does our nutrition look like, our sleep patterns, are we communicating and working through our emotional challenges when they aren’t severe so they don’t built up and cause a bigger challenge.”

Student-athletes often feel pressure to perform academically and athletically, and this increase in stress can trigger mental health issues. Due to the pressure to succeed in both realms, athletes often refrain from seeking help. 

In response to this phenomena, Miller shared his opinion on what is important to erase the stigma of mental health within athletics.

“The idea of mental health being part of the performance sphere is a new idea, and it’s not something that has been in competitive spaces forever — we are thinking about taking care of our mental health as an element to sustainable performance,“ he said. “[Mental health] doesn’t need to be an either or. I think you can be focused, and mentally tough, engaged with your sport and also take care of your mental health and have empathy for those who need help at the same time. Those aren’t separate things.”

Finally, Miller offered his own advice to all students.

“If you are a student athlete, or just a student, taking care of yourself, your mental health, your physical health, is the most important thing above all else. It is what allows you to reach your performance goals,“ he said. “The more that we can openly talk about that and be empathetic and understanding of what each other need to feel comfortable in our space… that will put us in the place that we will want to be better than sleep deprivation or lack of nutrition, or pushing ourselves to the point when we are unable to fulfill even simple duties.”

Linked below are various mental health services, including some resources with 24/7 support lines:

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988

Crisis Text Line: Text-based mental health support.

National Alliance on Mental Health Helpline

The Trevor Project: Suicide prevention and crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth.

National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: Providing eating disorder support, resources and treatment options.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Resources for those affected by suicide and ways you can help prevent it.

Mental Health America: Promoting mental health, prevention and intervention. 

The Jed Foundation: Protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for teens and young adults. 

Grace Van Atta is a junior from Montclair, N.J. studying Cognitive Science and Psychology. They are a student athlete on the fencing team. They are a contributing Sci-Tech writer for The News-Letter. 

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