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Rogers: The mental health crisis of collegiate athletics

Editor’s note: This column discusses eating disorders and mental health concerns.

The mental health crisis in college athletics is an epidemic growing more fatal every day. In the spring of 2022, it felt like almost every week, there was news of a student-athlete taking his or her own life. Even outside the more extreme situations, mental health issues have increased in student-athletes, and the resources are not catching up fast enough. Larger contributions to this crisis are stigmas surrounding counseling services, the “typical” athlete mindset, lack of support from coaches, overworking athletes and eating disorders. 

The stigma surrounding counseling for student-athletes is a substantial issue currently being discussed in the media. In the athletic community, there has been a big push for easier access to these services. The stigma, however, prevents young athletes from pursuing these services. The stigma around this topic consists of the use of negative labels that affect their view on this kind of treatment. There is a general consensus, right or not, that taking advantage of counseling is a sign of weakness for young student-athletes. The “hero” complex adds to this resistance to seek help, in fear of seeming lesser than their peers. Even when athletes decide this is the right choice, these services are not robust enough to keep up with the demand, adding another issue to the existing ones.

The “tough athlete” mindset worsens the stigma, especially in team environments. In athletics, competitiveness is key, so comparison is inevitable. Self-sufficiency is prized, and needing help does not align with self-sufficiency. It needs to be a priority that no matter what, athletes take care of themselves first. This lack of priority is difficult to overcome because fellow teammates, administrators and coaches, even more, see asking for help in this way as a shortcoming. Even more than coaches seeing counseling as an inconvenience and not necessary for peak performance, they are generally more concerned with team results than individual well-being. 

When athletes are recruited into college, they are seen as pieces of meat, for lack of a better phrase, and so their personal happiness is put on the back burner, and their physical strength, speed and endurance are prized above all else. Coaches are generally not trained, or not yet trained adequately, to handle mental health concerns on their respective teams. This disconnect means that student-athletes suppress their needs for fear they will be treated differently or not given the same opportunities. Athletes are taught to push through all physical pain, but the sporting community’s drive has escalated to the point of pushing past emotional pain, which can impact all parts of an athlete’s life. This mentality is rooted in the athletics institution as a whole, and so it is difficult to break this cycle.

Pushing past pain is good to a certain extent. That is how elite athletes contribute to winning programs. However, pushing can get to the point of overworking and burnout. Athletes are starting to train at elite levels at very young ages in hopes of being accepted into a competitive college program. This premature training means competitiveness is at an all-time high, and burnout and injuries are too. Working athletes past a certain point can create irreversible injuries, which are both incredibly physically and mentally taxing. These injuries can negatively impact school work and even last a lifetime.

Athletes, in general, are isolated from their “NARP” (non-athletic regular person) peers, but when they are isolated from these people as well as their teammates, mental health struggles become even more difficult. Resuming normal life is not easy when your main identity is being an athlete. Whether you are injured or taking time off for mental health reasons, separating yourself from the team is uncomfortable for many student-athletes.

A current and large aspect of college athletics worsening the mental health crisis is eating disorders and lack of discussion of nutrition. Eating disorders mentally and physically damage young men and women in athletic programs. This issue usually arises through pressures from coaches, peers and the athletes themselves. Although both men and women suffer, young women are more likely to develop eating disorders. By nature, women often compare themselves to one another more because of the media and other societal pressures. Although the “trend” right now is to be the classic gym girl toned from lifting, being strong does not always equate to beauty in the minds of young women, unfortunately. Athletics generally contributes to this unhealthy mindset and lifestyle because it adds unnecessary pressures and makes the sport seem to be the cause of body dissatisfaction. An endurance athlete may wish she had more muscle, but a strength-focused athlete may want to be in a smaller frame. Many athletes will justify their weight loss or gain as something they did for their commitment to their sport and their need to perform better, but the majority of the time, it is not the case.

Coach pressures add to this also because oftentimes, a certain body type is best for a sport, and so coaches want their athletes to mold to that ideal standard, which can be very destructive. Even more, many athletes pass away very young because of eating disorders developed by their respective sports. These unfortunate statistics highlight how deadly eating disorders are in the athletic community.

When circling back to the majority of these contributions, support, especially from coaches, seems to be a leading issue. The solution to this problem of worsening mental health could be reforming how coaches lead teams. More education for athletes, too, on how they can take advantage of resources around them and how they can put themself first is also a great step.

Although there is no “I” in the team, there is also no team without the players. Although it seems counterintuitive, selfishness may be the answer. Being selfish and owning your need is how you can be the best teammate.

As a student-athlete at Notre Dame, I have learned over these two years that putting myself first is the best thing I can do for my overall well-being in the short and long term. Running yourself into the ground is rewarding during the race, but after, the consequences are not worth the few minutes of success.

Contact Bella Rogers at irogers@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.