Help a Student-Athlete

Student-athletes are a unique breed. They are very driven, and are often resilient, high-achieving, and competitive. They’ve often spent their young lives overcoming challenges and striving for success to the extent that it becomes part of their identity. The same qualities that have helped them succeed, though, can be a barrier when it comes to asking for and getting help. While student-athletes suffer from mental illness at about the same rate as that of the general student population, they seek help at a much lower rate.

BACKGROUND

When student-athletes have a physical injury, most student-athletes want to have it examined and treated by the medical staff so they can get back to competing. There is no stigma against tearing your ACL. There is usually disappointment, and an understanding that hard work and a rehab process – guided by professionals – lies ahead. There is also a hope that one can eventually return to their sport, often better than ever. Recovering from mental illness need not be any different, if we can follow a similar protocol, without judgment. If we can look at mental health concerns objectively — as common, human health issues that can be treated and managed – perhaps more student-athletes would access the care that can be so beneficial to their overall health, well-being, and quality of life.

This portion of the site is designed to assist you in helping someone you care about who is struggling with a mental health issue. Hopefully it will help you understand the student-athlete’s perspective, signs and symptoms of mental health issues, barriers to help-seeking, (including stigma), and provide helpful talking points. Ultimately, individuals who are suffering from mental health conditions need to know that they are not alone, and that help is available.


RECOGNIZING DISTRESS

Most student-athletes are effectively able to manage the stressors they experience being both a student and an athlete, without any long-term consequence to their mental well-being. Everyone has “bad days.” Therefore, it is generally useful to look at patterns of thoughts and/or behavior, not just one or two isolated events, to determine if a student-athlete is experiencing significant distress and could benefit from a referral to a mental health counselor. Those closest to the student-athlete, such as teammates, friends, athletic trainers, coaches, academic support staff and parents are in a position to notice when something is “going on” that is out of the norm for him/her. Below are some behaviors and symptoms that may indicate a psychological concern. The list is not all inclusive.

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of interest or participation in things he/she is usually interested in
  • Loss of motivation
  • Withdrawing/isolating from social contact
  • Irritable, edgy, impatient, argumentative
  • Deterioration in appearance and/or hygiene
  • Negative self-talk
  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Loss of enjoyment in activities previously found to be enjoyable
  • Irresponsibility, lying
  • Mood swings or lack of emotion
  • Feeling out of control
  • Physical complaints not related to sport injury
  • Unexplained wounds or deliberate self-harm
  • Unhealthy weight control practices (e.g., restrictive dieting, binge eating, over-exercising, self-induced vomiting, or abuse of laxative, weight loss supplements and diuretics)
  • Overuse injuries, unresolved injuries, or continually being injured
  • Talking about death, dying or “going away”

It is important to be aware of what the student-athlete’s typical or usual demeanor and behavior are, so any changes can be compared and concerns can be flagged and addressed.


PRACTICAL STRATEGIES

Student athletes are often most comfortable talking first to a friend, teammate, or peer when they are struggling.  And although we want to help, it can sometimes be hard to know what to say in order to be supportive, so here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Remember, the student athlete came to you because he/she has a level of trust with you – this is a positive start.  You might want to let him/her know you are aware it is not easy to open up and that you are glad he/she did.
  • Approach and respond from a place of care and compassion.
  • Listen, listen, listen – Allow him/her to express thoughts and feelings.  Allow for moments of silence.
  • Avoid judging.  Provide unconditional support.  There is no need to pressure yourself to solve or fix the problem. You are not the clinician. Normalize the student athlete’s experience and offer hope.
  • Ask questions for clarification.
  • Ask questions about personal safety (“Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” and “are you thinking of suicide?”) Asking these questions will NOT plant the idea in his/her head If the answer to these questions is “yes” .call a mental health professional or take your friend to the nearest Psychiatric Emergency Department (PES). At the University of Michigan, the phone number for PES is (734) 936-5900. PES is located in the University Hospital at 1500 East Medical Center Drive.
  • Do NOT promise a friend that you will keep their suicidal thoughts or behavior private! “We need extra help. I want to connect you with someone who can help you.”
  • If you are approaching a student athlete due to concerns you have for him/her, be prepared to share concrete, specific examples of behaviors and actions that created your concern.  State them factually, without judgment and commentary. For example, “I am worried about you. You don’t seem like yourself lately. You haven’t been eating, you’ve been sleeping a lot, and you don’t seem as focused at practice. Have you thought about going to talk with someone about what’s on your mind?
  • Let him/her know there are resources available that can help and that you believe he/she can benefit from them.
  • You may choose to offer to go with them to the counselor for the first time.  Some people will be open to that and take you up on your offer.  Do not offer this if you can’t follow through, or don’t really want to do this.
  • Recognize that the student-athlete may not be ready for help right away and may refuse your suggestion.  Don’t take it personally.  You might want to follow up in a few days, specifically asking about the concern, and whether he/she has considered the idea of talking to a counselor.  If the willingness and interest is there now – PROVIDE SOME SPECIFIC NAMES/NUMBERS of professionals they can talk to.
  • If the student athlete acknowledges having thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or harm to others, it is imperative that you speak immediately to one or more of the following: counselor, coach, administrator, athletic trainer, other person in a position of responsibility.

On the rare occasion where there is an immediate threat to safety, call 911.

(Adapted from NCAA Mind, Body and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness, October 2014)


STEPS TO OVERCOME STIGMA & BARRIERS

When we are reluctant to do something, or try something new, it is easy to come up with reasons to avoid it.  Seeking help for a mental health concern can be one of those things that student-athletes delay, defer, or avoid altogether. Research indicates that participation in sport in high school and earlier acts as a protective factor for the student-athlete. However, as student-athletes move into the collegiate ranks, there are increased risks for alcohol abuse and other negative behaviors. Student-athletes have the same pressures and challenges as the general college student population, but also have to deal with the additional stressors inherent in being a student-athlete.  Even with these added stressors, studies show that student-athletes seek out and use mental health services at a significantly lower rate than non-athlete peers. Below are some of the reasons and barriers for this troubling statistic.

Internal Barriers
  • Uncertainty about what counseling is or how it might be useful.
  • Embarrassment, believing they “should” be able to handle it on their own.
  • Believing they can “tough it out” and it will get better.
  • Fear of what others might think if they knew the student-athlete was in counseling.
  • Fear that the coach may judge them as unable to play or perform and there could be a loss of playing time or role on the team.
  • Desire for a “quick fix.”
External Barriers
  • Time crunch – Student-athletes have very tight schedules and seeking help can easily fall low on the list of priorities.  It can seem impossible sometimes to make room in the schedule for one more thing.
  • They may be receiving messages from others who are influential in their lives that they shouldn’t talk to anyone about personal or private things.
  • Unaware of resources and/or how to access them.
  • Location of resources – Because student-athletes have very tight schedules, the more distant the mental health resource, the less likely they will be to use it.

Creating a culture in athletics where mental health issues are talked about as easily and readily as a physical injury will help to reduce the stigma.  When student-athletes know that coaches, peers, friends, parents, and others will not judge them negatively for addressing their mental health, that will help them feel free to seek help when needed.

(Adapted from NCAA Mind, Body and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness, October 2014)


U-M CAMPUS-WIDE RESOURCES

URGENT / EMERGENCY SERVICES

U-M Psychiatric Emergency Services: (734) 936-5900 (24 hours)
Counseling & Psychological Services: (734) 764-8312 (Business Hours) | Counselor-on-Duty
Counseling & Psychological Services: (734) 764-8312 (After Hours) | Professional Consultation Available

ON-CAMPUS RESOURCES

ONLINE RESOURCES

  • Campus Mind Works
    • The Campus Mind Works website was created to support the mental health of University of Michigan students. This site provides quick access to all support services on campus through a searchable database, and includes information to help students manage their mental health while in college.
  • Academic Support Services
    • The University of Michigan offers a variety of academic support services to help you succeed academically. This website is designed to help you learn about the wide range of services on campus.
  • MiTalk
    • MiTalk is a website created by Counseling & Psychological Services for University of Michigan students. This site includes online screenings for depression and anxiety, skill-building tools for stress management and academic skills, as well as digitally recorded lectures, events, and workshops, and downloadable videos.


NATIONAL RESOURCES

URGENT / EMERGENCY SERVICES

  • Call 911
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text “Start” to 741-741

ADDITIONAL NATIONAL RESOURCES

  • Active Minds, Inc.
  • American Association of Suicidology
  • American Foundation of Suicide Prevention
  • National Network of Depression Centers
  • Suicide Prevention Resource Center
  • ULifeline