Student Athlete Mental Health: Tips, Recommendations, and Common Problems

Student Athlete Mental Health

If the regular student has problems with mental health, in 9 out of 10 cases, the medical specialist would ask whether there is enough physical activity in the student’s life. But what must those who have more than enough physical exercises but still face tremendous mental struggles do? Student athlete mental health is often a stigmatized, silent, and lonely experience. Read this article to better understand your peers or yourself, too, and find the help you so desperately need.

The Unique Challenges Faced by Student Athletes

Studying in college or university is a tough enough path in itself. Students struggling with anxiety, burnout, sleep deprivation, and physical and mental exhaustion from the academic overload are common things. However, mental health in student athletes is usually a more severe case, and here is why:

  1. The Athlete student faces all the same academic challenges as the regular student AND also strives to keep the high achievement bar in sports.
  2. Student athlete mental health sometimes becomes overlooked due to the athlete’s representation as a strong, high-achieving personality.
  3. Athlete identity and well-being are often totally tied to their NCAA Compliance.
  4. Stress and depression in athletes are high due to overwhelming isolation. The demanding schedules of student-athletes may limit their ability to engage in social activities and connect with peers.
  5. Unlike other students, athletes face more injury rehabilitation challenges. Complicated or chronic conditions as a result of sports trauma threaten the core support poles in a student’s mentality.

Balancing academics and athletics: a mental health perspective

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), approximately 520,000 student-athletes are competing in all three leagues and diverse sports. At the same time, the research from 2015 showed that 10-15% of collegiate athletes experience severe mental health challenges and do not seek help.

In rough numbers, 52,000 to 78,000 athletic students may need psychological assistance and do not seek professional help.

Balancing academics and sports in college is one of the reasons for that disturbing situation. From a psychological perspective, mental health in college athlets must be addressed through extensive education on the results of burnout and depression. Here is how that works:

Mental Health Education for Student Athletes

Mental health stigma in sports makes the students believe that psychological well-being does not impact their college results. However, mental health issues affect academics and sports performance in three key points:

  • Poor mental health causes a severe decrease in grades and overall performance.
  • From a long-term perspective, mental health issues may result in the student getting expelled from the educational institution.
  • Untreated illnesses significantly decrease the student’s quality of life.

Understanding and addressing social anxiety and substance abuse

Mental health support for athletes also sometimes overlooks the role of socializing. Athletes live a “double life,” yes, but they cannot be fully open and accepted in either of them.

  • The academic-centered students cannot propose close relationships with athletes as the sport takes a sufficient amount of time. Such friendships rarely strive as both parties must try to stay in touch.
  • The athletes’ community is highly competitive. Athlete students can have some friends and teammates in their leagues, but sports are often about competitiveness and fighting for your place under the sun.

In the field of mental health student athletes need a safe place to be accepted for who they are. Lacking one leads to substance abuse and similar unhealthy coping strategies for student athletes.

According to the American Addiction Centers, athlete students prefer alcohol and marijuana as the main destructive substances. Within the past year before the survey, 46% of lacrosse players, 33% of swimmers, and 25% of baseball players had cases of marijuana use.

The impact of injury on athlete’s mental health

Out of all the cases of student athletes mental health, both sports psychology and injury psychology are the most disturbing fields. Why so? Because the stress and fear of losing their whole identity is a constant background noise in the student’s mind. Being in the NCAA I, II, or III league means keeping the right physical form all year long. Students can get a break from participating in the competition, but there are no breaks from keeping your body image and strength intact. Therefore, any injury affects both athlete performance and mental health.

Identifying Signs of Mental Health Issues in Athletes

As said, “student athletes and mental health” is sometimes a stigmatized topic inside the athlete community. Hence, anyone related to the field must know the key signs that something is wrong:

  1. The athlete has an untypical short temper, irritability, or outbursts of anger.
  2. The person reports significant changes in sleep patterns.
  3. There are also changes in eating habits, and the athlete avoids being in the company of close people.
  4. The athlete shows signs of constant fatigue, mood swings, increased anxiety, or a lack of concentration.
  5. The person seems to have lost their typical confidence and optimism about the sport.
  6. There are signs of self-care neglect, suicidal comments, jokes, and expressed helplessness.
  7. The person explicitly strives for extensive perfectionism and experiences anger or frustration when these attempts fail.
  8. The athlete increased the use of alcohol or showed any other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  9. The athlete does not seem to enjoy usual activities and expresses sustained doubts about their sense of life.
  10. The person struggles with self-identification.

Strategies for Student Athletes to Manage Stress and Mental Health

Okay, but what should someone do if there are any signs of poor mental health present? Here is the list of the common challenges with mental health in college athletes and good coping strategies.

Mental health issueGood coping strategies
Overwhelming stress
  • Reminding the person that their sport or academic identities are not the only ones. They are allowed to develop the other ones or change their identity any time they want.
  • Seeking help, delegating some part of responsibilities to other people for some time.
  • Developing mandatory self-care routines. Delivering the fact that self-care must always be a #1 priority.
  • Seeking professional help. Asking close relatives, friends, and partners for support.
Perfectionism and overachieving
  • Reminding the person that perfectionism leads to poor results, and healthy self-development leads to better performance.
  • Keeping a diary of achievements and gratefulness to yourself for these milestones.
Social anxiety and loneliness
  • Looking for supportive mental health resources for athletes.
  • Starting and leading such a resource, if there are none. People get the most fulfilling social relationships while helping others with the same struggles.
The loss of physical form and sports identity
  • Recognize that your identity extends beyond your role as an athlete.
  • Try mindfulness practices and mental skills training to move into your new era in life. Separate what you can and can not control, and try to embrace both.

Building a supportive environment for athlete mental health

The most important thing each community has to understand is that the mental health of each of its members is a problem for the whole community. Over 970 million people struggle with mental health across the globe. It means that athlete students are only a small part of the common problem. Yet, for the athletes to be seen and accepted, it must become a default setting for each person. Here are three effective ways to develop this society:

  • Mental health lessons must be a part of the standard education curriculum.
  • There must be more free and safe platforms for both student-athletes and any other category of people to share their experiences and find people with the same struggles.
  • Sports in college must be more about healthy physical development than about setting records and keeping high competitiveness.

Anchor: Mental health of student athletes must not be a silent and lonely issue to go through.

The Role of Coaches and Sports Staff in Athlete Mental Health

From all other people around athletes, coaches are the most equipped to notice when something goes wrong. There are a few crucial factors that make coaches responsible for keeping an eye on athletes’ mental health.

  • The coach precisely knows the student’s limits and regular performance rate. Hence, coaches can ring a bell if these metrics abruptly drop or increase.
  • The coach will be the first one for athletes to go to for help. If something goes wrong in sports, students do not have many professionals around except for their mentor.
  • Coaches and students spend a lot of time in the presence of each other. This type of connection forms close trust bonds.

Here is what the coach and other sports staff can do to support athlete performance and mental health:

12 Good Things for Sports Staff to Do to Support Athlete Students

The Positive Impact of Sports on Student Athletes’ Mental Well-Being

Although stress and depression in athletes are common issues, we must adhere to the objective perspective. There is nothing inherently bad about sports, competitiveness, and regular physical exercises. To keep a fair record, let’s also name some positive impacts of sports on student athletes’ mental health:

  • Regular sport is a good way to drop some emotional tension. The hormones produced during exercise help the body naturally regulate stress responses.
  • Regular exercise through sports contributes to better sleep patterns.
  • Regular physical activity supports cognitive functions, positively impacting academic performance.

Being a part of a sports community or not is a personal choice. However, being there for each other must be a default setting for each of us. This way, there will be no issues either with student-athlete mental health or any other social category.

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Mark Edison
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Mark is a pro in education and science. He writes about opportunities for studying in the best schools across the US and abroad. Also, Mark is a devoted sociologist always ready to explain the latest trends in the community.