Student-athletes have better safety net to deal with mental health issues

by Angie Baldelomar

Building strong relationships with student-athletes is essential for fighting the stigma surrounding mental health in sports, said Dr. Sheriece Sadberry, sports psychologist at the University of Kansas. Mental health stigma is far greater in sports than in any other field.

“As an athlete, you’re expected to play through the pain,” she said, explaining the reason for a greater stigma in the athletic world. “The question when you say, ‘I’m hurt coach, I’m hurt,’ is ‘are you hurt?’ or ‘are you injured?’ because if you’re just hurting, you gotta keep playing.”

This pressure to perform adds to everything else student-athletes already are dealing with. Since being an athlete is part of their identities, she said, they feel they are not good enough when not playing. This leads students to ignore their issues in order to keep playing instead of addressing them.

“For the longest time in athletics having a mental problem was considered a weakness,” Sadberry said. “You’re not strong enough, you’re not good enough.”

The shift in accepting the presence of mental health issues in sports has also been benefitted by professional athletes coming out and confessing their own battles with mental health, such as Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, former Cowboy running back Joseph Randle, and former Washington Mystics Chamique Holdsclaw.

At the collegiate level, the NCAA released in January a set of guidelines on how to deal with mental health of college athletes. The organization has also released a book, “Mind, Body, and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness,” that further deals with the topic of mental health.

Kansas Athletics, KU’s department of athletics, has a way to start de-stigmatizing mental health and help-seeking among its athletes.

“It’s about de-stigmatizing the person,” Sadberry said. “You’re part of the team, and that helps to start de-stigmatizing mental health.”

One of the ways sports psychologists working with student-athletes do that, as Sadberry said, is by spending time with the students beyond medical help. They have lunch together, go to practices, go to games, and later on, she said, students would not have a problem reaching out to them to talk about their problems.

“Our coaching staff has been amazing at having a good relationship with them,” she said.

Karen Loudon, Watkins Health Center physical therapist, said that the relationship between athletic trainers and staff with student-athletes is essential for detecting mental health problems.

“Over at the athletic department here, they have athletic trainers that interact with students, the athletes, and they know them,” she said. “They have a better relationship, a longer-term one, and that can help because they know what that person is like and they might be able to figure out if they are depressed or not.”

Associate Director of the Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, Pamela J. Botts said that CAPS provide services to student-athletes, as it does to any student.

“They are a special group because of the nature of the world they live in,” she said. “Sometimes, it is hard because they have a demanding schedule, and it is hard to fit into that with our services.”

Botts said that this is one of the reasons the athletics department would often refer students to outside sources.

“It’s a challenge to schedule things for them sometimes, and sometimes someone outside the university has a lot more flexibility to do that,” she said.

Some of the other reasons, she said, is if there is something CAPS cannot do, or does not offer enough support for. Botts also said their services are limited due to staffing and specialization issues.

However, according to Sadberry, the student-athlete lifestyle has one advantage over the regular student population.

“The beauty of the athletic world is that you’re not alone,” she said. “The general student population can feel isolated because nobody is looking out for them.”

For athletes, this is a completely different reality.

“The one benefit that they do have is that they have to be somewhere,” she said. “They have more eyes on them, more hands on them who would notice. We have a better safety net by being a part of that team and having that rigid schedule.”

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Overtraining or depression?

Listen here to Dr. Sadberry explaining how overtraining and depression mirror each other, and what she does to avoid misdiagnosis.

Mental Health at KU in numbers

ku-mental-healthQuick overview of the state of mental health in the student population at KU.

Infographic: Angie Baldelomar. Source: NCHA Spring 2015 Report – University of Kansas.
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