How to Curb the Student-Athlete Mental Health Epidemic

NACDA Atheltics Experts WHOOP Unite Panel Image

This spring, in the span of just two months, the NCAA community lost five student-athletes to suicide. The pain of that incredible loss is felt across families, friends, college communities, and the NCAA community at large. WHOOP Unite and OWN IT recently brought together medical and college athletics experts for a panel discussion on what must be done to curb this horrific trend and better support student-athletes. 

A Recipe for Unhappiness

Dr. Meeta Singh, a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in performance sleep medicine and serves as a consultant to numerous professional, collegiate, and Olympic teams, explained student-athletes are more likely than the average student to have sleep and mental health issues due to a number of factors, including but not limited to chaotic schedules, academic pressure, and high expectations around winning. 

90% of college athletes that are struggling with mental health conditions do not seek help graphic

Student-athletes are also less likely to come forward to talk about the mental health challenges they may be facing. According to Athletes for Hope, 90% of college athletes that are struggling with mental health conditions do not seek help. And, as Dr. Nicki Moore, the VP and Director of Athletics for Colgate University who has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, pointed out, 42% of women and 57% of men in a recent NCAA GOALS Study reported they were not comfortable talking with their coach about their mental health. 

To make matters worse, when high-functioning students are struggling, the warning signs can more easily be missed because they continue to show up and perform.

The problem is scary, but not unsolvable. Teena Murray, SVP of Integrated Performance for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who previously spent 14 years as the Director of Sports Performance at the University of Louisville, offered this perspective. When ACL injuries were abundant in the ‘90s, the community rallied to solve this problem. If the same rigor is applied to the student-athlete mental health crisis, we will be able to develop better education, assessment tools, and resources to solve this issue as well.

A Framework for Addressing the Student-Athlete Wellness Crisis

Oftentimes, the first solution suggested to universities is to hire more sports psychologists and counselors. And while that’s a good start, our experts feel more is needed to drive cultural change. Dr. Alex Auerbach, who currently serves as the Director of Wellness and Development for the Toronto Raptors and previously served as the Director of Clinical and Sport Psychology for the University of Arizona, reiterated some thoughts from his recent Twitter post and follow up blog: “Providing more resources for these athletes is a great step. But we’re missing the forest for the trees. The problem isn’t resources. The problem is the system.” 

Justin Roethlingshoefer, who has over 20 years of experience working as a performance coach and director in the NCAA, AHL, and NHL, offered additional perspective. In a recent blog post, he wrote, “The incentives for holistic health and high performance are aligned. Truly high performance requires optimal holistic health.” 

During the discussion, these experts offered a framework of education, access, and action to begin to change from a culture focused on athletic performance to one focused on holistic student-athlete health.

Education is the Foundation for Cultural Change 

Across the board, our experts emphasized the importance of educating all stakeholders — starting with coaches and students. Educating through data leads to a change in attitudes which, in turn, leads to a change in behaviors.

According to Auerbach, coaches would benefit from training around softer skills, like communication, relationship building, and how to ask better questions, as well as topics like learning theory and data utilization.

Students also need to be better educated when it comes to mental wellness. Murray offered an NBA template that might be helpful when considering how to do this. In the NBA, there are mind-health programs at both the league and the team levels, and all rookies must take part in three 1-hour education sessions during Summer League. Murray suggested the NCAA should offer centralized education and resources and then mandate conferences to create similar programming and infrastructure with accountability plans for member schools. 

Improving Access is Critical

Along with education, students need better access to support services. Sports psychologists and counselors must be available on campus and the referral network must be robust. Dr. Singh also calls for proactive programs, including screening for dysfunction and misconceptions. Low-cost screenings developed specifically for student-athletes are available to identify which students may need immediate help with sleep and mental health issues. The key here is to be proactive.

Cultural Change Requires Action

As Roethlingshoefer put it so aptly, “Now is the time for us [coaches, administrators, commissioners] to put the empowerment of our student-athletes first. When we see athletes as humans, education and empathy-in-motion become a must.” He added, “Cultural change requires action. To get different results, you need to choose differently.” Our experts offered some tangible steps you can take today to make a sizable impact this fall:

Graphic stating 42% of student-athletes are sleep deprived and 76% of athletes have never been taught how to sleep properly

Educate around healthy sleep habits. While many factors impact mental and physical wellness, sleep is among the most important. 42% of student-athletes are sleep deprived, while 76% of athletes have never been taught how to sleep properly. 

A recent WHOOP study at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire is proof of how improvements in sleep duration and quality can transform student life. After students were educated about sleep and given access to their sleep data through WHOOP, sleep improvements were significant. By the end of four months, each student slept an hour more per night on average. This increase in sleep was also accompanied by a 16% increase in their average HRV, an indicator of the body’s ability to adapt to physical, mental, and emotional stress.

Graphic stating stats from NCAA athletes 4 month study

Prioritize Recovery. Empower student-athletes with a tool like WHOOP to help surface 24/7 data around recovery, helping them better understand how their choices impact them day-to-day. After a four-month study using WHOOP, a group of NCAA athletes saw significant improvements, including:

  • 41 minutes more sleep per night
  • 10% increase in high-quality sleep
  • 10% reduction in alcohol consumption before bed
  • 50% reduction in late night caffeine consumption

Access to student-athlete recovery data can also empower your coaching staff to make improvements to the way they operate. While you likely have plenty of data on athletic performance, what you probably need is an understanding of what’s happening in the other 22 hours of the day that’s impacting student-athletes' ability to show up at their best.

Examine your bonus structures to ensure mental wellness is valued as much as winning. Dr. Moore suggests examining the bonus structures embedded in coaching contracts. Are we actually rewarding what we’re saying is important? Explore ways to incentivize positive coaching like instituting a Net Promoter Score (NPS) for coaches, and establishing or increasing bonuses around student-athlete graduation, student-athlete engagement with wellness resources, and coach utilization of counseling and executive coaching resources.  

Normalize talking about mental health. There is currently a lack of comfort talking about mental wellness. It’s time we normalize the topic so people feel more comfortable coming forward when there is an issue. 

Now is the Time for Change. Who will Take the Lead?

At WHOOP Unite, we believe in empowering student-athletes to achieve holistic wellness. College may only last a few fleeting years, but the habits and learnings during that transformative time can and do change people’s lives. 

It’s time to move away from a culture focused on athletic performance to one focused on holistic student-athlete health. This requires change —  driven by education, access, and action. Which school will take the lead?

WHOOP Unite and OWN IT recently brought together medical and college athletics experts for a panel discussion on what must be done to support student-athletes' mental health needs.

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