It is a common misconception that playing sports as a student can improve your mental health and boost your confidence. Student-athletes are just as likely as the rest of their peers and possibly more at risk of developing mental illness and unhealthy coping mechanisms. They face stressors that most students wouldn’t encounter, such as extensive time requirements, pressure to perform at a level near perfect, conflicts with other student-athletes and coaches, and are more likely to sustain an injury.
All of these factors can help foster severe mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and a variety of eating disorders. Also due to the high pressure and the perfection mentality, student-athletes are less likely to reach out for help, only allowing these illnesses to get worse over time. These students are also not provided with the resources to get the help they need, mental illness is heavily stigmatized and the perfection mentality prevents coaches and sports administrators from finding or creating these resources.
One way to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness and health is to educate coaches and administrators about mental health and wellness. Providing courses to go along with initial training and confirming that coaches have gotten mental health training is the first step to helping student-athletes and the sports community. The coaches also play a role as educators to their athletes, and making sure that the students are educated themselves and willing to pass on that knowledge is an important factor in destigmatizing. Along with mental health education, there should also be an increase in mental health awareness. This comes in the form of advertisement of mental health services along with a more open and supportive school community willing to foster wellness.
Services such as trainers, counselors, health professionals, overall health education, physical and mental therapy, and crisis workers should be more widely available to student-athletes. Tracking the health of students is also beneficial, as one can track mental illness and wellbeing over time and can use that data to reach out to individual students and provide services to them. These services need to be made available but they also need to be maintained and kept accountable. Bad services aren’t helpful to anyone, so they need to be well-executed and evaluated over time, as well as available to a majority of the students. That means making sure these services are affordable or grant financial assistance to those who need the help.
Taking care of the wellbeing of student-athletes is difficult but it needs to be done and handled in a constructive way. It starts with destigmatizing and then educating both coaches and students. The process moves on to incorporate services to students, both reliable and affordable. Student-athletes are just as much at risk to mental illness as the general population is, possibly more so. It’s important to make sure that they are taken care of so they can enjoy the sport they are playing and do it without long-term repercussions.