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Best Practices for Combating Student Athlete Mental Health Concerns

Young man resting on the stairs after runningOver the last few years, the mental health of athletes in general has become a national conversation with several star players like the NBA’s Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan speaking out on the subject.[1] It is an issue that is being recognized not just in professional sports, but at the collegiate level.  This prompts the question:  what are universities doing to combat the unique risk of mental health problems that a college atmosphere can create?

In 2016, the NCAA released a document titled “Mental Health Best Practices” in response to these growing concerns.[2] In it, the NCAA outlines what they call, “[F]our key components for understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness on the college campus.” These four components include:

  1. Clinical licensure of practitioners providing metal health care
  2. Procedures for identification and referral of student-athletes to qualified practitioners
  3. Pre-participation mental health screening
  4. Health-promoting environments that support mental well-being and resilience

While the promulgation of this document by the NCAA is a step in the right direction, the battle to improve student-athlete mental health is just beginning. For colleges and universities, there are several steps that can be taken to help ensure a successful athletic department both on and off the field.

To start with, schools can choose to implement these NCAA “Best Practices.” The “Best Practices” document is not a regulation that schools must follow—it is simply a guidance document for schools looking to improve student-athlete mental health. By implementing the four suggested practices, schools can show their commitment to the cause and demonstrate an effort to comply with the NCAA’s recommendations.

Second, schools can follow the lead of their students. Across the county, several of the most impactful student-athlete mental health initiatives have been started by the student-athletes themselves. For example, athletes at The University of Pennsylvania have been some of the loudest voices for mental health reform following the highly-publicized suicide of track and field athlete Madison Holleran in 2014.  Penn athletes have been continuously lobbying for full-time therapists to work in the Athletics Building—so far to no avail.[3]

Other student-athletes are working to squelch the stigma of mental health issues with campaigns of their own creation. In early 2018, an Oregon State soccer player started the #DamWorthIt campaign to encourage discussion of mental health issues in the student-athlete community.[4] Many other student-athlete run initiatives can be seen at campuses across the country.

Lastly, schools can implement other mental health screenings mid-season, in addition to the pre-participation screening suggested by the NCAA. Many of the pressures facing student-athletes do not mount until the season begins. Football physicals, for example, occur in the preseason months—long before the pressure of balancing sports and a college course load has manifested. The stress of an underperforming team or a lost position battle also will not manifest until after the season has begun. The implementation of a mid-season mental health screening would give athletic departments a more accurate picture of a student-athlete’s mental health, and in turn allow them to engage treatment options before it’s too late.

Colleges and Universities are no longer in a position to ignore mental health issues. Implementing a strong student athlete mental health program will allow schools to protect their players by providing them with the tools to create a positive college experience. The act of paying due attention to mental health issues could also potentially provide athletic programs with several fringe benefits, including a positive public perception, a potential recruiting tool, and maybe even a better team performance on the playing field.

For more information, please contact an attorney in our Title IX practice group.

This article was written by Katie Dwyer, law student at the University of Tennessee College of Law, with contributions from Dana Drew Shaw. 


[1] Kevin Love, Everyone Is Going Through Something, The Players’ Tribune (Mar. 6, 2018), https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/kevin-love-everyone-is-going-through-something; Tom Schad, Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan details struggles with depression, anxiety, USA Today (Feb. 26, 2018), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/raptors/2018/02/26/raptors-demar-derozan-details-struggles-depression-anxiety/372543002/.
[2] NCAA Sport Science Institute, Mental Health Best Practices (2016), https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/HS_Mental-Health-Best-Practices_20160317.pdf.
[3] Amy Liu, How Madison Holleran’s death has shaped discussions around mental health in Ivy League athletics, The Daily Pennsylvanian (Apr. 24, 2018, 2:54 PM), http://www.thedp.com/article/2018/04/madison-holleran-impact-higher-education-mental-health-penn-upenn-philadelphia.
[4] Lindsay Schnell, Oregan State athletes launch mental health initiative to help students with depression, USA Today (Jan. 19, 2018, 11:18 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/pac12/2018/01/19/oregon-state-athletes-launch-mental-health-initiative-depression-damworthit/1047901001/.

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