For many student-athletes at Marist College, the sport they love is all-consuming, both physically and emotionally.
Waking up early in the morning knowing they get to play the sport they were recruited to come to Marist for can provide them with a boost in self-esteem. Practicing on the field or on the court, watching film, bonding with teammates and coaches, playing against other schools, winning games and sometimes even championships are all part of the experience. Many athletes love the ins and outs of what they do on a daily basis and on the surface, it may seem like they are their truest and happiest selves.
But what happens when they struggle to perform? What happens when they find themselves not playing as many minutes as they want? What happens when the team struggles to win games? Are they still their happiest selves?
Beyond their athletic performance, we must also take into account everything else a student athlete is responsible for. Just like any other student, they have homework, papers, projects, midterms and finals to worry about. What happens if they aren’t doing well in a class? This isn’t even accounting for their social life, family, and all the little things that life brings us humans.
So who do they go to when they are struggling?
According to Marist athletic department’s director of student-athlete enhancement Alyssa Gates, student athletes are strongly encouraged to talk to Health and Counseling Services. Part of this is because the athletics department doesn’t have a designated mental health specialist. In fact, only three out of the 11 schools’ athletic departments in the conference have someone designated for mental health.
The closest thing Marist College has to a sports psychologist are “liaisons” according to Elena Yee, one of the clinical counselors in Health and Counseling Services. “There’s a counselor assigned to each team to connect with the coach and with the athletes to let them know what’s going on,” said Yee. “I used to go to the games and at the very beginning of the season. I would come and share about the services we have and then would come back again mid-semester.”
So why is it that Marist and seven other schools in the MAAC don’t have a sports psychologist?
“Money is the reason and it’s a very specialized person,” said Gates. “But our athletic department did budget for one this year and requested to hire somebody, so there will hopefully be somebody in the next year if that gets approved.”
As we speak, the athletic department is in the process of buying a year-long subscription to an app called Athlete Talk, an app specifically designed for student-athletes. According to Gates, it’s designed to be like a social media app where you scroll through short videos or articles and includes a journaling portion to write down any thoughts an athlete may have.
But all student-athletes have other resources at their disposal. Gates constantly sends them emails about workshops, webinars, or articles to use as resources. Health and Counseling services also offer a variety of resources for the entire student population. They have open clinic hours, 30 to 45-minute virtual appointments with any of the counselors on campus, have private rooms, which allow students to schedule a telehealth appointment with them or with a provider at home, and use other online resources like Thriving Campus, Psychology Today, and Inclusive Therapists.
Despite the resources Marist has currently, Yee shared that between 10 to 12 percent of students seek a counselor. With regards to student-athletes nationwide, according to several websites, only 10 percent of them seek mental health counseling. Yet a Fall 2020 NCAA survey on mental health concerns revealed that upwards of 25 percent of male athletes “felt mentally exhausted” on a constant or “most every day” basis while an average of 40 percent of female athletes reported these same feelings.
Stigma certainly has played a role in the discrepancies between student-athletes feeling exhausted or overwhelmed and them seeking help.
“A big piece of it, particularly for male athletes, and I think some female athletes feel this as well as the vulnerability piece,” said Gates. “Like, you have to be tough, you have to be strong, particularly with some of the expectations, don’t show your emotions, you’re weak, you’re less of a man.”
Based on the glaring lack of student-athletes taking advantage of these resources, it is clear that an effort must be made to destigmatize reaching out for help. An example of this is taking place at Fairfield University, as clinical director and psychotherapist Lisa Arnold shared that the school implemented a green bandana program for their student-athletes just a month ago.
“Based on the size of the team, we got between two and five athletes per team, so we ended up with 55 athletes and gave them all green bandanas to tie on their sports backpacks,” said Arnold. “We have monthly meetings and the training that I provided was to help them to recognize and be able to refer students who are in distress or crisis.”
When the green bandana representative does recognize the person in need of help, they have little resource cards with people they can call. The representatives are also allowed to sit with the student and help them, with emphasis put on listening during training. This, Arnold argues, can help destigmatize the stereotypes surrounding mental health and therapy. Though still early, the results have been promising.
Yee believes destigmatization can be reduced by implementing training for coaches and administrators within the athletics department to recognize when their student-athletes are struggling with mental health. Sidney Person, a former football player at Marist, thinks things should be taken a step further, as he believes that a sports psychologist would go a long way in helping to reduce stigma.
“I think they definitely should have a sports psychologist, but I feel like you can’t just have one because that’s not going to be enough, ” said Person. “How can one person balance all those students’ emotions and feelings?”
Person makes a good point: Marist and other schools can’t just have one person, there needs to be a team of them. It is important to note that despite Niagara’s and Fairfield’s sports psychologists having the “sports” label in front of their titles, they are both actually liaisons, much like Yee is here at Marist.
So is it the MAAC’s fault that the schools don’t have a sports psychologist?
Schools across the country already struggle with staff shortages in their health and counseling departments and can’t afford to pay a sports psychologist, who makes anywhere from $62,000 to $91,000 a year according to several websites.
But one thing’s for sure: COVID-19, social justice movements over the last four years, and the six athletes who committed suicide since March have only accelerated the need for counselors and more awareness of mental health, especially in student-athletes.
Yet, the NCAA does not have a rule that mandates athletic departments to have a mental health specialist.
In an age where people are more outspoken than ever about topics that were brushed aside before the turn of the century, topics such as mental health, gun rights, abortion rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement, the response from the NCAA concerning mental health has been passive, to say the least.
Recommending back in 2016 that a mental health practitioner should be, “easily accessible to student-athletes” is not enough. Posting on social media or on the website that it’s mental health awareness month is not enough. Posting on social media, “Our condolences to the family, friends and teammates” after the fact is unacceptable. It should never get to that point in the first place.
So how can the NCAA help its student-athletes?
In a letter sent to the NCAA Board of Directors on April 28 by Lindsey Kilpatrick of UMass Lowell, made three suggestions. “Mandate a Mental Health Practitioner at Every University,” “Subsidize Mental Health Practitioner Salaries at Eligible Institutions,” and “Increase Education Programs for Staff and Coaches.”
Though it would take time for the NCAA to make changes, the effects would trickle down through every conference that makes the NCAA what it is today. Changes would go a long way in not only addressing student athletes’ mental health but will also help in destigmatizing negative stereotypes.
Marist is just one of the many schools that could greatly benefit from such changes, but the changes must start from the very top and must happen soon.
Think of the athletes that love playing their favorite sport in college, those who wake up early in the morning with a sense of excitement. Those who love practicing on the field or on the court, watching film, and all the other things that come with their sport. And for those who may be mentally struggling, there would likely be a sense of comfort knowing that their school has a mental health specialist because the NCAA listened to its student-athletes. They too can wake up and feel the sense of excitement that mentally healthy athletes feel.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
Edited by Luke Sassa and Jonathan Kinane
Photo from Jonathan Kinane