Penn Athletics should follow Michigan’s lead, work harder to address athletes’ mental health

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By Laine Higgins

Being a student-athlete is hard. Plain and simple.

And when it comes to mental health, student-athletes are not necessarily more at risk than their peers. Research done at the University of Washington by Dr. Ashmin Rao has shown that incidence rates of anxiety and depression tend to be lower among student-athletes than non-athletes.

“Athletes actually have a ton of social support,” he said. “They have a lot of resources, trainers, coaches and people who keep their eyes on them at all times. So they’re a more monitored group.”

Despite that support, athletes are far less likely to seek out help. A 2014 study done at the University of Michigan School of Public Health with a random sampling of 7,000 students from nine universities found that only 10 percent of student-athletes with depression or anxiety took advantage of mental health resources, whereas 30 percent of non-athletes utilized care.

This is a problem. And it’s a problem that Penn can and should address.

Under the tutelage of athletic director Grace Calhoun, some improvements have already been made. During the 2014-15 academic year, all of Penn’s coaches underwent “ICARE” (Inquire. Connect. Acknowledge. Respond. Explore.) training. It’s a crash course designed by Counseling and Psychological Services for Penn faculty and students to identify the signs and symptoms of mental health issues.

“We’re trying to be more proactive with identifying signs with students who might be presenting in a certain way so we can get out in front of it and hopefully catching things before they escalate,” Calhoun said.

Sherryta Freeman was also brought on in July 2015 as senior associate athletic director to oversee student-athlete development, including mental health issues.

But that is not enough.

A good starting point would be to mimic the Athletes Connected program at the University of Michigan and give Penn student-athletes a platform for discussion. Started in 2014 as a partnership between the School of Public Health, the Depression Center and the Athletic Department with funding from a grant from the NCAA, Athletes Connected is a specialized program aimed at reducing stigma, promoting help seeking and raising awareness.

“One of our big goals is to create conversation of mental health among our student-athletes because there is a huge stigma surrounding helping student-athletes,” said Emily Brunemann, a former captain of the women’s swim team at Michigan and program coordinator of Athletes Connected. “There is a tough-it-out mentality, they’re supposed to be strong, they’re supposed to do it by themselves and gain success.”

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