Mental Health and College Athletes: The Challenges

Man running on sports track early morning

College athletes seem to be living their dreams. They’re accomplishing their educational goals and getting at least part of their schooling paid for by playing the sport they love. College athletes also are under intense pressure from family, friends, teammates, coaches, and even their fans. College athletes also put pressure on themselves to excel at their sport and in the classroom. Mental health and college athletes are subjects that must be linked and considered.  

What Percentage of College Athletes Experience Mental Illness?

Researchers estimated that about 30% of college student-athletes have a diagnosable mental health disorder. These disorders range from anxiety and depression to eating disorders. 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) publishes the most widespread research on mental health and college athletes. In its most recent study of 9,800 athletes, the NCAA found that mental exhaustion, homelessness, anxiety, and depression were just some of the concerns student-athletes experienced. 

The survey’s findings included:

  • Mental exhaustion was the most common concern the athletes reported. Women (38%) reported this concern more highly than men (22%). Female athletes were also more likely to report loneliness or hopelessness.
  • Most student-athletes (69% of women and 63% of men) said they know where to go on campus if they have mental health concerns, but more than half said they weren’t comfortable seeking mental health assistance on campus.
  • About half (55% of men and 47% of women) said their mental health is a priority to their athletic department.
  • Only 59% of men and half of women said their coaches took their mental health concerns seriously. They reported that their teammates took mental health concerns at least as seriously (men), if not more (women). And almost 60% of each group said they knew a teammate struggling with a mental health issue.
  • About half of the student-athletes were pleased with their ability to balance academics and extracurricular activities, including athletics. Men (56%) reported more confidence in this ability than women (47%).

Overall, the study suggests that student-athletes experience the same mental health concerns as other students, but they have the added pressures of athletics to add to those concerns.

“Imagine being in your 20s and having thousands of people watching and cheering for or criticizing you as you play a game,” said William Feck, LPC-MHSP, NCC, Therapist at Integrative Life Center. “These are the unique situations that college athletes face.” 

The Challenges College Athletes Face

While many college athletes try to push past their stress and come out on top, not all can actively or positively move forward. Many factors can affect the mental health of college athletes, depending on the individual and their unique circumstances. 

Challenges college athletes face include:

  • Academic Stress. Like other students, college athletes must keep up in classes and with grades, causing academic stress. But this stress is unique for college athletes who frequently miss classes to attend games or matches and must keep a certain GPA to keep their scholarships and meet eligibility requirements.
  • Pressure to Perform. Student-athletes have pressure to perform in their sport. This pressure comes from coaches, parents, peers, fans, and themselves. It’s a unique and public pressure that other students don’t experience.
  • Scheduling. College students balance many things, including classes, jobs, studying, and social lives. Student-athletes strive for that same balance but add practices and games to the mix.  
  • Financial Strain. Most college athletes don’t receive full scholarships, so they must determine ways of covering tuition, housing, and other expenses. They also often can’t work even part-time during their athletic seasons because of the scheduling demands of their sport. Some student-athletes can secure endorsement deals, but those also come with performance standards.
  • Love and Hate from Community. Student-athletes are public figures. How they perform during competitions results in either admiration or criticism from the public, who often doesn’t consider their age or experience levels.
  • Race and Gender Equity. Not all student-athletes receive the same treatment. Some athletes face problems with opportunity differences, unequal access to resources, and discrimination or harassment within their sport. 
  • Transferring Schools. Thousands of student-athletes transfer schools each year. Whether they’re looking for a better fit, a more successful team, or fleeing conflict with coaches, transferring means starting over in a new place with unique challenges.
  • Limited Social Life. Student-athletes don’t always get much time to spend with anyone but their teammates. Their schedules mean they have limited free time to socialize or engage with peers. This limitation can be isolating, especially when there is conflict on their team.
  • Injury Risk. College athletes are at higher risk of injury resulting from their sport. These injuries can take a physical and emotional toll. 
  • Career Prospects. Most college athletes don’t get post-collegiate jobs in their sport. That means they also have the stress of knowing that they’re spending time and energy on a sport that won’t provide them with a career path after graduation.

The Mental Health Effects of College Athlete Challenges

College athletes can arguably face more challenges than the typical college student as they also have pressures from their coach, teammates, parents, school administrators, fans, recruiters, and future job prospects. With pressure from so many places, it’s easy to see how mental health and college athletes are worth considering. 

Mental health issues college athletes face include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Extreme stress and pressure
  • Hopelessness
  • Loneliness  
  • Burnout
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use

College athletes face many of the same issues as other students, with some additional concerns. 

“College students aren’t necessarily unique in the mental health concerns they have, but what stands out is the sometimes unusual circumstances that result in these concerns,” William explained. “Some of the pressures these students face are even greater than those of adults who have fully-developed brains.”

Finding Support

As shown in the NCAA mental health study, college students who face mental health concerns may be uncomfortable seeking help from campus resources. They may fear that the information won’t remain private or will result in negative coach responses. But seeking support, resources, and professional help can greatly reduce mental health concerns and foster healthy coping strategies. Student-athletes deserve access to mental health care they can trust.

“Imagine needing help for a mental health concern, knowing help was available, and still not feeling confident that you could trust it,” William said. “This situation is often what college students experience. They have access to free mental health services, but they aren’t sure that what they say won’t get back to coaches or, even worse, media outlets.” 

Taking care of mental health is as important as caring for physical health. Students who don’t feel comfortable using campus mental health resources should seek professional mental health assistance. Their parents or other trusted individuals can help them locate such resources locally or even online. 

“There are a ton of mental health resources out there, William said. “Everyone deserves to have access to care that they can trust and feel confident in.”

Integrative Life Center Can Help

Integrative Life Center offers various treatment options to fit individuals and their unique needs. All of our treatment is confidential, so you never have to worry about privacy. Let us help you achieve your goals and become the person you were always meant to be. Contact ILC and start the healing you deserve.

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