Mental Health in Collegiate Athletes

Not all mental illnesses in collegiate athletes appear during their career. Many don’t show signs of mental illness until long after they have left the student-athlete experience. Unfortunately, this is the circumstance for Peter Busch. An Elizabethtown College who was part of the men’s soccer team in 1989 when they won the NCAA championship his junior year. In 2003, Busch took his life because of the toll that 9/11 had on him. Many of his fellow firefighters perished during 9/11, and Busch was not there to help because this was on his day off.

“After two years of living in turmoil and strife because he was not there to help, it weighed on him heavily,” Busch’s former coach and head men’s soccer coach at ETown Skip Roderick said, “After a lot of thought and a lot of guilt and a lot of sadness; he stopped his truck on the Tappan Zee Bridge and because of post traumatic syndrome, he jumped off the bridge.”

The Elizabethtown College men’s soccer alumni have come together and donated a touchstone soccer ball placed in the entrance of Ira R. Herr Field. The purpose of this ball is to remember not just Busch, but all soccer alumni. Before every home game played, men’s or women’s, each player and coach on the team must touch the soccer ball to remember and honor Busch and all former Blue Jays who have passed away. The college came together in a time of great sorrow to do something out of the ordinary to honor those who have suffered.

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The NCAA completed a survey in 2016 called the GOALS Study of the Student-Athlete Experience. Over 21,000 student-athletes responded from Division I, II and III schools. The NCAA was looking at all the different aspects of college that athletes deal with that non-athletes don’t have to experience. In the findings, one of the top issues relevant to today’s college athletes health and well-being. College campuses reported that they are seeing an increase in the number of student-athletes experiencing anxiety and depression, and 30 percent of the athletes taking the GOALS survey stated that they have been “intractably overwhelmed” in the months when their sport are in season. However, this survey was anonymous, which makes the NCAA ask how many of these student-athletes that responded actually reported the problems they faced to their coaches or athletic trainers.

According to an ESPN study, suicide was the third leading cause of death of student-athletes from 2004-2008, behind accidents and cardiac issues. The study found that suicide is due to the accumulation of the many factors being a student-athlete entails that begin to build up over time. And the worse it gets, the more impossible it feels for an athlete to come forward and seek help because he or she does not want to appear weak to their teammates and coaching staff. A prime example of this is former Michigan football player Matt Heininger.

            “I had emotional pain that was overwhelming; I would wake up, and from the morning until I fell asleep – when I was able to sleep – I had troubling thoughts that were utterly consuming,” said Heininger to ESPN. “Not a minute would go by in a day without my depression on my mind… this, this felt impossible.”

            It wasn’t until Heininger had a breakdown on the practice field when he came forward to seek help. Mental illness is truly one of the greatest silent epidemics found in student-athletes that is starting to be recognized more and more. ESPN also spoke to Timothy Neal, the assistant athletic director for sports medicine at Syracuse University, about his research done on the subject and the excessive pressure put on today’s student-athlete.

            “One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues,” Neal said, “but what is unique about the student-athlete is that they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue.”

            Student-athletes face different stressors and reasons for depression than other students. Yes, all students write papers and take tests, but they are not competing in front of a massive crowd in the middle of an exam and are not cramming homework in on three hour long bus rides after playing a full game. This is what non-athletes do not understand. Collegiate athletes, when in season, have a very limited amount of time to get all of their homework and others things accomplished. This is where the overly induced stress and anxiety sets in. It is important that non-athletes involved in collegiate athletes lives understand the stressors they go through every day and offer support whether it looks like they need it or not.

“Stress, anxiety, and mental illness stems from many things transitioning to the college level,” Dr. Elizabeth Dalton, psychology professor at Elizabethtown College, said. “But athletes do have that higher expectation in terms of high performance regardless of how intense their schedules are and how they manage their time.”

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            Chris Morgan, head athletic director at Elizabethtown College and former roommate and teammate of Peter Busch, told us that none of Peter’s friends or family had seen his suicide coming. With a wife, kids, a good job and great friends, no one thought that he would’ve done this to himself and all of those that he loved.

            But mental illness, whether it develops before, during, or after college, is something that many keep to themselves. It is not until a mental breakdown like Heininger, or Busch’s case, that those around them realized that there was something off about the person.

            What people need to realize is that athletes don’t want to have this trauma in their lives, and they are not making it up to get out of running a fitness test. The stress and anxiety that consistently high expectations has on a person can wear them down. It is a concern that is becoming more prominent in the NCAA across all divisions of college athletics, and should not be ignored.

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