Mental Health Tools For Athletes

Coming off her gold-medal performance at the Beijing Games, 22-year-old snowboarder Chloe Kim said this week she plans to take off the 2022-23 season to focus on her mental health, citing the need to press reset after a “draining year.”

Kim is the latest professional athlete to publicly share the impact competition can have on mental wellness and one of several high-profile performers to at least temporarily step back from athletic events entirely, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka and Olympic swimmer Caeleb Dressel.

Bringing these choices into the public sphere has helped normalize what has long been a taboo topic on all levels of athletics. According to a 2019 study in the journal Sports Medicine, the barriers impeding an open discussion of mental health issues “include more negative attitudes towards help-seeking amongst athletes than the general population, as well as greater stigma and poorer mental health literacy.”

On the college level, conferences and universities are prioritizing overall health by placing mental well-being on an equal plane with the traditional medical support provided to physical injuries, embracing the concept that conditions related to mental health should be treated with the same focus and care as an ACL tear or concussion.

Concerns over mental wellness have gripped college athletics in recent weeks after the deaths of three female student-athletes by suicide, according to statements from family members and local coroners’ offices.

Stanford soccer player and team captain Katie Meyer, 22, died March 1. Wisconsin track athlete Sarah Shulze, 21, died April 13. On Thursday, the Western Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia ruled the death of James Madison softball payer Lauren Bernett, 20, to be by suicide. 

“We have to make it a topic that’s OK to talk about, that’s OK to be able to speak about without any sort of stigma or without any sort of judgment,” Dr. James Borchers, the chief medical officer for the Big Ten and the co-founder and president of the U.S. Council for Athletes’ Health, told USA TODAY Sports.

“Institutions are looking at that, not just with athletes but students in general. In athletics, it’s becoming a much more recognized need for athletes that are participating.”

Not long after being hired in 2019, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren established the league’s Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet with the goal of “creating and maintaining the most comprehensive mental health and wellness platform in college athletics,” he said at the time.

Last November, the Big Ten joined the ACC and Pac-12 in establishing an initiative, Teammates for Mental Health, designed to educate coaches and student-athletes on the signs that an individual may be struggling with their mental health.

In terms of creating a public dialogue, these steps and similar programs established on an individual university level have brought the issue into the mainstream after an extended period of neglect on topics such as anxiety, depression and the sports-school balance for student-athletes.

“I think that in the past, if you go back 20 years and we thought about athletes’ health and safety, we focused a lot on physical health and safety,” Borchers said. “But this is an area that has definitely come forward as a point of emphasis and point of concern, where in the past it may have been second, third, fourth or even further down the line.”