Athletes’ Mental Health: A Series on Student Athletes

Part 4

By Katie Montgomery

It’s been widely reported that college students have higher rates of mental health issues than the rest of the adult population in the US. It’s estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health that one in four students enter college with some kind of history of mental illness and treatment. Keep in mind, that’s before the stress of college has even started.

The American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment reported that 85 percent of college students feel overwhelmed by everything they have to do; 81.7 percent feel exhausted; 65 feel sad and 59 feel very lonely. Overwhelming anxiety and anger were reported by 58 and 39 percent, respectively. And almost 10 percent reported that they seriously considered suicide.

It could be said that reporting a feeling is one thing and that not all reported feelings of depression and anxiety are “real” episodes of mental health problems. But even taking that into consideration, 25 percent of college students have been formally diagnosed or treated for mental health issues. This is almost twice as much as non-college adults, according to the NIMH.

Now, on top of the usual college stress, take away weekends and dedicate several hours a day for athletics rather than school work.

Emily Wollet, assistant athletic director at Youngstown State University, said that it’s not uncommon for people to brush mental health problems until it’s too late.

“We have parents and coaches who will tell students to shake it off,” she said. “And it’s not that they don’t care, but they just don’t understand what that’s like. Until you experience it yourself, or are around somebody close who’s experiencing it, you won’t have the empathy or understanding on how to support it.”

To make things worse, it’s easy for people to think student athletes have no reason to mentally struggle, Wollet says.

“We look at them and see they have a scholarship, a team and all this gear given to them, but that doesn’t matter when you have a mental health issue,” she said.

But for the NCAA, mental health was not a topic of public discussion until the suicide of Madison Holleran, a runner at University of Pennsylvania, in Jan. 2013.

Brian Hainline was hired as chief medical officer by the NCAA in the same year to gather a comprehensive publication of data, professionals, former and current athletes and coaches.

The result was the book “Mind, Body and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Wellness, which discusses personal experiences, the kinds of illnesses and potential treatments, hoping to fight the stigma that has been traditionally associated with mental health.

The inside of the front page has a bold quote: “… it is our responsibility to provide the services and care to help each student-athlete reach his or her full potential.”

To Wollet, addressing students’ mental health problems before they leave college is essential.

“The important thing is if we don’t support students with all the resources we supposedly have here to help them, then their life will move on like that after college too,” she said. “We need to make them strong before they leave here with all of our resources.”

In order to better connect students with the services they need, Wollet partnered with Nicole Kent-Strollo, former nurse practitioner, nursing professor and track coach.

“We noticed [the] gaps that campus was not filling,” Wollet said. “We’re not saying anyone is dropping the ball, but what can we do better, differently, or more of to support our students.”

Along with several athletic trainers, the pair attended a mental health conference in Indianapolis last summer hosted by the Horizon League, the Division I athletic conference that all YSU sports are a part of, except football. University professionals from the league’s 10 schools attended to collaborate, discuss and learn how to better preserve the health of their student athletes.

“The Horizon League is in the front of these developments by having that mental health conference,” Wollet said. “Mental health has to be seen as important and real, and coaches have to buy into it.”

The conference confirmed Wollet’s and Kent-Strollo’s vision for a connected, student-oriented campus — and not just for athletes. They returned to YSU with renewed purpose and passion to push for more service developments.

The two administrators launched individualized wellness plans last fall, which work through an anonymous referral system on the YSU athletics webpage. True to their name, the plans are unique student-to-student and are personally developed by Wollet.

The program has been extremely successful, she says.

“Anyone can submit a request online and some athletes even reported themselves,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of the kids who stepped forward and said they need help and are fighting that stigma of mental health.”

According to Wollet, sometimes it’s as simple as signing them up for a tutor to keep them accountable and to manage stress, but other students may need an emergency appointment with a psychiatrist.

After a few months, the number of referrals filling their emails made it apparent that YSU needed some other way to identify and work with these students — there were far more than Wollet or Kent-Strollo originally expected.

While there are athletes who report themselves anonymously and ask for help, Kent-Strollo noticed that most athletes tend to mislead coaches and trainers about their mental health. She says it’s partially because of ingrained conceptions of discipline and toughness, but it’s also because they’re scared of losing playing time.

“Athletes specifically come here [as recruits] and sell themselves to the program, and they’re not going to promote the negatives,” she said. “But they’re bringing their lives with them. It’s going to be there, and we have to help.”

In other words, initiating treatment with services that are currently available at YSU couldn’t rely on just the athlete to recognize and report their own mental health problems.

“I feel like I know most of YSU’s student services,” Wollet said. “But even I don’t know everything and we realized we needed a full-time staff member who knew what and where everything was and who could connect students to the services we already have.”

To learn more about what YSU could offer students, Kent-Strollo asked to join the YSU Behavior Intervention Team, or BIT Team, as an athletics representative.

The team has existed for years to collect reports of at-risk students and assess if they were a danger to themselves and others. But even the team knew that wasn’t enough.

“One of the things that kept coming up was that nobody had the capacity or ability, legally, to reach out to these people,” Kent-Strollo said. “We just got information about the student and we asked if they appeared to be a danger or a threat to themselves or others. Other than that, we really couldn’t do much.”

Kent-Strollo and Wollet both pushed for the creation of a new position, the director of Student Outreach and Support, to be part of the BIT Team.

When Kent-Strollo learned the position had been created in December, she immediately applied and was accepted a short time later. She has since resigned from her nursing practice and stopped coaching the track team. She is now finishing up her last semester of teaching.

All of this is to set a precedence of non-partisanship for the position, since the goal is to avoid the legal hurdles of confidentiality that a traditional ombudsperson would maintain. In this position, Kent-Strollo now has the legal ability to directly contact a student who has been reported to be at risk, mentally or emotionally.

“We needed the legal ability to reach out to a student,” she said. “Even if it’s just to say ‘I heard you’re going through something, and if you need anything, just let me know. We’re here for you’.”

This can range from contacting students who have been hospitalized, charged with sexual assault or exhibiting withdrawn and potentially harmful behavior. She can also report incidents freely and follow-up with the accused students, which neither an ombudsperson or a Title IV representative could do.

“But if a student comes in and tells me there’s been a sexual assault, as a director, I can report it as an incident,” she said. “And our Title IV staff are great advocates for victims. But sometimes the accused needs support too. Maybe they don’t have family, maybe it’s not even true and they’ve now been suspended from school; they’re off campus. How are they supposed to email a professor and say I can’t come to campus?”

Although she is not working directly with athletes anymore and the IWPs are now more of Wollet’s domain, Kent-Strollo still calls on athletes when they fall in her system.

With her new position and the legal freedom from maintaining confidentiality, she is “able to disclose [to the coaches] that something is going on, but not necessarily disclose the situation.”

But most of the time, she receives reports of non-athletes from professors and tutors.

“A lot of students feel alone and don’t know they have anyone here,” she said. “A lot of them are shocked that I call them because they don’t think anyone cares.”

She laughs recalling some of the phone calls she’s made already. “Some of them are not happy about me calling, and they want to know how I got their number,” she said. “But when they realize I’m not asking anything crazy, they relax and seem relieved.”

For many, she says, initiation of contact or asking for help is the hardest part of the healing process.

“It’s so important to tell someone you’re not the only one that experiences this and you can try this to help,” she said. “Now we can take what we’ve started to do with athletes and bring it to the rest of campus.”

For now, Kent-Strollo doesn’t even have a budget for the position. For advertising, she relies on professors to let her give a short presentation to their freshman courses.

The dream, she says, is to connect students with people outside campus who want to help students, ultimately creating a symbiotic cycle between students and nonprofit organizations. It’s a “mish-mosh” right now she says, and it’ll take a few years to work out. But to both Wollet and Kent-Strollo, the future is bright for campus resources.

“I’m just excited that people cared enough about [mental health] to do something about it,” Kent-Strollo said. “I think a lot of it stemmed from the Horizon League and that forum we had, and there were people who came back and said athletics is doing this, and we need to do this for the rest of the university.”

Part 1: here

Part 2: here

Part 3: here