Keeping Student Athletes Mentally Fit Gains Support

The risks of being a college athlete aren’t just physical. Student athletes carry added responsibilities and performance pressure that can take a toll on mental health, too. Injuries, concussions or addictions acquired to relieve prolonged stress or physical pain can set student athletes up for serious behavioral and mental difficulties that need care and treatment.

That’s the reason for new guidelines, introduced to help school administrators, physicians, athletic trainers mental health experts, coaches and athletes recognize and deal with mental health. The guidelines, released in the September/October issue of the Journal of Athletic Training, were developed through a partnership between the National Athletic Trainers Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The standards are a positive thing for collegiate sports and athletes, according to Steve Curtis, PhD, a sports psychologist and consultant for Indiana University Health Sports Performance, who specializes in helping people and organizations achieve high performance.

“About 20 to 30 percent of the time, I see athletes for performance issues who also need help with a mental health issue, whether it’s for anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders or some sort of addiction,” Curtis says. Those proportions are similar to the rate of mental illness for all 18- to 25-year-olds (29 percent), but   twice as high as for people 50 years or older. Student athletes tend to abuse alcohol at higher rates than the student body as a whole, and they are the third most likely demographic group to commit suicide.

All things considered, anyone involved in college sports should be attuned to mental health because student athletes have a lot on the line. “They’re under tremendous stress to make the grades and perform at a high level in their sport,” Curtis says. “It’s a real test of mental strength to manage all this.” He says coaches, teammates and trainers are in a good position to notice behavioral changes that suggest a problem.

“I think it’s great that there is some awareness and insight moving through the culture that recognizes there is often a physical reason for emotional or behavioral issues among athletes,” he says. As a sports psychologist, Curtis considers his work with athletes a form of preventative mental health to help them withstand pressure. “Sports can be a very positive way for students to learn how to manage success and failure,” he says. “If a kid is strong enough mentally, they are less likely to have as many mental health issues and they’ll be more resilient.”

For more information about psychological training to help you improve mental toughness and develop high performance habits, visit IU Health Sports Performance or register for Dr. Curtis’ class, Performance Psychology for Athletes, Musicians and Students. 

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