The death of the Stanford football star renews questions about the mental health of student-athletes. The pressures they face present distinct challenges, experts say

By Dakin Andone, CNN

After confirming that her 22-year-old daughter, Katie Meyer, had died days earlier by suicide, Gina Meyer wondered aloud this month if the star goaltender for the University women’s soccer team from Stanford may have been overwhelmed by pressure from sports and academics.

“There’s anxiety,” she told NBC’s “Today Show,” “and there’s stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be No. 1.”

This pressure would not have been unique to Meyer, whose death in early March shocked the sports world, say experts who work with student-athletes – none directly with Meyer – to help them overcome mental health issues. .

“College athletes are equally, if not more, susceptible to most mental health disorders,” Dr. Claudia Reardon, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, told CNN in an email. “It surprises some people, who see these tough, physically flawless humans and wonder how depressed, anxious or suicidal they could be.”

Athlete mental health is a growing topic of conversation among elite professionals, like gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and NBA forward Kevin Love. And the obstacles facing student-athletes can be just as stressful, the experts who spoke with CNN said, though none spoke directly about Meyer’s death — the reasons for which are not known.

Student-athletes live with the same demands as regular students, such as maintaining their grades and social life and keeping in touch with their families. But they also face pressure to perform on or off the pitch, demanding training and practice schedules, travel and – for those in high profile – public scrutiny. and fans on social and traditional networks.

On top of all this, a stigma persists in the world of sport around mental health – discussing it, seeking treatment and, in doing so, perhaps revealing what might be perceived as weakness, experts said.

At the same time, playing a sport has huge benefits for the well-being of many student-athletes, they noted, and can also help them cope with mental health issues. And college-level programs have increasingly made it a priority to hire psychologists and others sensitive to athlete mindsets to support students who have also come to college to play sports.

Yet the pressures student-athletes face are distinct from those of their non-athlete peers, experts tell CNN, while presenting distinct challenges for doctors and others who work with them to overcome mental barriers. .

Demands on student-athletes create special challenges

A 2019 NCAA survey found that approximately 30% of participating female student-athletes felt that “difficulties piled up so high” in the previous month that they had “very often” or “fairly often” the impression of not being able to overcome them. Among participating male athletes, that figure was around 25%, according to the survey.

Of course, athletes are people too, and like any segment of the population, some have mental health issues. But what complicates student-athletes’ mental health issues are the demands placed on them and their bodies — and it’s not just anxiety or depression.

For one thing, student-athlete injuries pose a risk for post-traumatic stress, said Dr. Josh Norman, an attending psychiatrist at Ohio State University’s Jameson Crane Institute of Sports Medicine. After an injury, student-athletes may exhibit hypervigilance, an “aversion” to certain movements or situations that might remind them of the “traumatic event” – all symptoms that may appear during physical therapy, a- he declared.

“These things can also show up in athletics when people are exposed to a very serious injury or witness a death (injury) or the death of a teammate in extreme sports, for example,” he said. he declares.

A student-athlete’s mental health issues can also impact their physical health, Norman said.

For example, anxiety disorders can increase student-athletes’ muscle tension or tendency to be distracted, impact sleep and performance, as well as increase the risk of physical injury, Norman said. And when prescribing drugs, he said, student-athletes and doctors should keep in mind how drugs can affect athletic performance and whether they may be monitored or banned by the NCAA or the anti-doping agencies.

The time demands of student-athletes and the expectations they face often mean there’s not much chance of a break, said Chris Bader, assistant athletic director for mental health and performance at the University of Arkansas. While students might be able to take a mental health day and skip class, athletes cannot.

Media and fan attention can pose another mental health risk to student-athletes – a sentiment also expressed by professional athletes like Osaka.

During the French Open last spring, the four-time major winner announced that she would not attend press conferences, citing her mental health. The 23-year-old quickly withdrew from the tournament, revealing she had been suffering from “long bouts of depression” since winning her maiden Grand Slam title in 2018.

Osaka added that although reporters have been kind to her, “I’m not a natural public speaker and I feel huge waves of anxiety before speaking to media around the world.

“I’m getting really nervous,” she on Twitter“and finds it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best possible answers.”

College athletes can also feel this. Many are on the national stage, and Norman hears about bullying when a student-athlete loses a game or makes a mistake, he said. Being in the spotlight can also complicate student-athletes’ symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as their ability to seek treatment in private — as most people can — he said.

Last year’s change to NCAA rules that allows college athletes to make money with their name, image and likeness — dubbed NIL — may add another layer of stress, Bader said.

“Certainly, I think a lot of our students are doing well. They’re a little excited about it,” he said. He knows students with 3 million followers on TikTok, he said. “I think they embrace that stuff. But it’s also, what impacts does that end up having on their mental health? »

Fighting an old stigma

According to experts, stigma persists in the world of sport.

Athletes can have trouble, Reardon said, turning off their “playing face” when they step off the field, and they’re often encouraged to push through adversity — something Bader described as an “old-fashioned mentality.” school of ‘rub dirt on it and endure.'”

Still, there have been huge strides toward eliminating the stigma, thanks in part to athletes like Osaka, Biles and Phelps speaking out about their own struggles, experts who spoke to CNN said. Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, shared his journey with anxiety and depression in 2018, saying during an interview for the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group, that he had considered suicide in the past. Mental illness, Phelps said, “is stigmatized, and it’s something we still deal with every day.”

Additionally, today’s student-athletes often come to college having previously participated in councils, Bader said. Some have worked with sports psychologists as young athletes, and they recognize the resources available to them and sometimes even await them. Coaches and coaches, he said, also recognize the benefits of good mental health and are in a good position to recognize when a student might need support.

Sports organization conferences and schools have also prioritized hiring sports psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals who understand the mindset of athletes, Bader said.

“A non-sport trained clinician might say something like, ‘Well, if your sport is stressing you out so much, why not just quit? “, Bader said. “It’s like asking them not to be right-handed.

“That kind of intense understanding of athletics as a variable — like a demographic variable, almost — is for me the first step to working in athletics, understanding athletics.”

But more needs to be done to tackle the stigma and get help to those in need, experts said. According to the NCAA study, less than half of participating athletes are “very satisfied” with the care they received from their schools and teams for mental health issues.

The NCAA, Reardon said, has done a lot, convening a mental health task force in 2013 to develop best practices, asking institutions to implement mental health referral protocols, ensuring that mental health by qualified practitioners are available and ‘overall to create an environment that promotes mental well-being and resilience.

“But many universities and colleges,” she added, “need resources and staff to be able to put all of these things into action in a more consistent and meaningful way.”

And it should be noted that for many, sports – especially team sports – have mental health benefits for student-athletes, namely a community that serves as a built-in support system.

“Sport can be associated with the development of confidence, skill, character, caring, connectedness and friendships,” Reardon said, in addition to “superior academic achievement.”

“I think that’s why you see companies wanting to hire former (student) athletes,” Bader added. “It’s the intangibles — it’s timing, it’s motivation, it’s drive, it’s competitiveness. We want to make sure this is pointed in the right direction when they leave our buildings.

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Naomi C. Amerson