NCAA develops initiative on student athlete mental health

The Daskalakis Athletic Center was host to a visit by the senior vice president and chief medical officer of the Sport Science Institute, Dr. Brian Hainline, Jan. 29. Hainline was in Philadelphia for the weekend because he was being honored for his work in cardiac health by a group called the Simon’s Fund. He was asked by Drexel to give a talk about the new initiative launched by the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Student Athlete Mental Health. The guidelines, released a week prior to Hainline’s visit, detail the best practices in assessing and maintaining a student athlete’s mental health and any subsequent treatment.

Senior biology major and field hockey player Lauren Hibshman commented during an interview about the current state of mental health awareness among student athletes. “I think the NCAA is making great strides toward bettering the awareness of mental health in student athletes,” she said. “In the future I hope there are more programs for athletes and the discussion is brought out in the open more.”

Highlighted during the talk were issues such as hyper-aggression, eating disorders, stress, over-drinking, drug abuse, depression and traumas such as sexual assault.

“We hope to make this an issue that the entire country awakens to,” Hainline said in an interview.

In his talk, Hainline mentioned that an estimated fifth of male athletes report having been in a physical fight within the past year. Over 30 percent of female Division I athletes will drink over four alcoholic drinks in a sitting, with 40 percent of their male counterparts drinking over five. Hainline also discussed statistics surrounding depression and what he claimed was a severely underreported incidence of sexual trauma.

According to the background of the guidelines, one in five adults suffer from a mental illness in a given year, with the highest rate occurring among young adults and college-aged students. Athletes with depression, eating disorders or other mental illness can suffer a greater risk of injury than healthier athletes do.

In an email interview, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine Michael Westerfer had a few words to say on the issue. “Studies have shown that student athletes suffer from the same mental health issues and at similar rates as their non-athlete peers. The most prevalent are stress and anxiety, depression, disordered sleeping, and eating disorders,” he said.

“My recommendation for student athletes is to ask for and seek help if they struggling in any aspect of their life. Mental health is an important part of student athlete wellness,” he continued.

“Take advantage of on campus resources, such as Counseling Center, DrexelMindKare.org (an online resource for student-athletes to learn more about wellness) and the MindKare screening kiosk located in the lobby of the recreation center,” he concluded.

The guidelines call for licensed practitioners to evaluate athletes and for schools to be transparent concerning the options available to students. Hainline expressed more than once the importance of school emergency plans in case of mental health crises such as suicidal thoughts, homicidal ideation and sexual assault. The guidelines also recommend mental health education to help athletes deal with daily struggles such as stress and sleep deprivation. Hainline also spoke extensively about the importance of peer-intervention.

“The document just came out but there’s already been a great buzz and the student athletes in particular are really behind it. We’re working with the culture association on this and we have several other plans on how we’re going to get this in all of the pockets of the membership,” Hainline said.

“Just generally speaking, mental health has not been always the priority…It’s sort of like a silent injury because you can’t see it on an X-ray and the culture is often just to tough it out,” he continued. “As an athlete we’re kind of expected to mentally tough. Your coaches are hard on you at practice sometimes and you’re expected to get stronger from that.”

“Drexel Athletics has established an interdisciplinary approach to working with our student-athletes who are struggling with mental health wellness. There are open lines of communication and collaboration between Drexel Counseling Center staff, Team Physicians, Athletic Training Staff, Student Health and Achieve Center,” Westerfer said.

“Drexel Sports Medicine has taken a proactive approach to mental health and wellness. Drexel student athletes are screened annually through our pre-participation mental health screening process. Drexel Athletics has a policy of  direct referral to the counseling center and a medical appointment for any student athletes who experience mental health issues, to evaluate their health status,” he said.

In light of the release of these guidelines, Westerfer said that Drexel feels that it already addresses the major issues outlined in the document itself, but hopes to continue improving for the benefit of the athletes.

“I see these NCAA Mental Health Best Practices as a benefit for student athletes’ health and welfare and will help all NCAA members schools re-examine their current practices. This document will serve as a guide to best address this area of wellness that may have been overlooked in the past,” he explained.

Hainline was careful to discuss the many gaps in student athlete mental health research. His main concerns regarded research on best utilizing psych evaluations, returning students into academics or the field after a diagnosis and a centralized database. “My vision is that at the front end all of the athletes, the coaches, the administrators acknowledge mental health as as important as an ankle sprain,” he concluded.