It’s time to end the mental illness stigma for student-athletes

Haley Mills takes to the hardwood during spring training. (Photo courtesy of Emma Lorenzen).

Mental health stigma has become an increasingly large problem in society. The NCAA has, in previous years, disregarded athletes’ mental health. However, the organization has made the initial effort to conduct surveys that ask athletes to speak up about their mental health.

There is not a specific standard procedure that the NCAA follows, though. Mary E. Wilfert, associate director of the NCAA Sport Science Institute, confirmed this.

Intervention cannot come out of the national office. We are not a medical organization,” she said.

I am writing as a part of the student-athlete community. After being a collegiate athlete for two years in an NCAA program, several concerns have come to light. Why is mental health not a top priority for the NCAA?

It is easy to find an athlete with a physical injury during his or her season, but it can be near impossible to recognize an athlete’s mental health problem. Athletes would have to come forward and admit to their struggles, and with an athlete’s typical mindset, it’s rare to see that happen. As athletes, we are trained to be tough and to not show weakness.

Jordan Butler, a counselor for the Wellness Center, said he believes that athletes are most likely to be nervous to admit to mental struggles. 

I think the main reason [athletes are hesitant to ask for help regarding mental health] is because seeking help is often seen as anathema to the ‘warrior’ culture that sport espouses,” Butler said. 

We are trained to leave our bad days off the court or field, because if we do show weakness, we might suffer heavy backlash. Athletes give up hours of their day to academics, practice, extracurricular activities, work, and at some point have to find the time to take care of our bodies. That includes rest, physical therapy, and eating.

But there are even more expectations for athletes: a successful social life and keeping up with personal relationships. If we even think to ask for a break or for a second to breathe, we are perceived as weak. We are athletes, we are tough. We arent supposed to struggle.

As my concerns about student-athletes’ mental health grew, I wanted to take action starting with our campus — my mission is to not blame the NCAA for the number of athletes who struggle with mental health. The NCAA has made conscious efforts to work with coaches by using training modules and other resources. McDaniel College has the resources to help mental illnesses, but do our athletes know about those services?

I do not think that all athletes are aware of mental health services on campus. That being said, I encourage any person that wants to know more to contact me at the Wellness Center,” said Butler. “Working with athletes is one of my favorite parts of my job at McDaniel. 

I want my fellow athletes to be aware of the services we have on campus. Jessica Wolverton, the head coach for the womens volleyball team, said she recognizes that the Wellness Center is a valuable resource for students.

“As coaches, we should not be mental health counselors for our athletes, but we do know that sometimes they come to us before theyre willing to seek out treatment,” she said. “Our job is to listen and to point our athletes in the direction of professional help, and in the case of mental health, thats the Wellness Center.”

We stigmatize mental illness and characterize it as an uncommon experience, especially for athletes. We cannot just blame the NCAA for a high number of mental illnesses in student-athletes; we, as members of a student athlete program, have to stand up for ourselves and take advantage of the on-campus support we have.

The Wellness Center provides counseling for every student on campus for free. There is even a counselor specifically for athletes, and it takes less than a five-minute phone call to schedule an appointment with the Center. We need to make the conscious effort to fight the stigma around mental illness, and we need to talk openly about mental health and be willing to talk about our experiences.

It is crucial to educate one another on the importance of mental health. Choose to empower one another — mental health does not dictate who we are as people. Our goal as a community is to reach out to one another and shine light on ways we can help those with mental illnesses. With the bond that we share as athletes here on campus, let’s continue to help one another. Stop stigmatizing mental health and start sharing the knowledge of resources we so greatly have.  

Editor’s note: Students looking for mental health solutions may call the Wellness Center at 410-857-2243 or visit the second floor of the Winslow Center.