Mental Health in College Sports: What We Can Learn from Student Athletes

Monday, April 3

Every spring, sports and non sports fans alike tune into college basketball during March Madness, one of the most watched national sports events where 68 college teams play in an elimination tournament for the championship. There’s something in it for everyone — from office pools to historic upsets to connecting with a favorite college team. It’s when college basketball athletes get to shine on the national stage. It’s also when stress and pressures are high.

College by itself is already a stressful time for students. Add competitive sports on top of that, it’s time we talk about the mental well-being of student athletes who put everything on the line — not only during sports season but throughout the year. 

College athletes and depression 

Across US college campuses, almost five million students play collegiate sports. With the pressures of school and sports, mental health is a huge concern for school and college athletes. From 2008-2012, National College Health Assessment surveys show that 31% of male student athletes and 48% of female student athletes reported anxiety or depression symptoms each academic year. 

College athletes are also at risk for eating disorders, gambling or substance abuse, sleep problems, and mood disorders to cope with the pressures of school and sports. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death among all college students. In 2022, four college athletes died of suicide. 

Performance pressure and training can lead to depression

Feeling stressed and anxious is common for college students. In fact, 63% of college students report feeling anxiety in the past year. As a college student, you’re away from home, your support system, and you’re adjusting to a completely new environment. 

Now if you’re a college athlete, those levels of stress are compounded and could lead to symptoms of depression. These could be due to:

  • Extreme training or even overtraining
  • Pressure to perform at your peak
  • A heavy workload from balancing schoolwork with sports
  • Constant fatigue from little rest and overwork
  • Pain due to a sports injury

Signs of depression and suicide

Someone with depression may feel guilty and not want to be a burden to those around them. They may withdraw socially and not ask for help. They may hide their symptoms. 

That’s why it’s important to seek help if you see these signs.

Warning signs 

  • Impulsive, aggressive, or reckless behavior
  • Increased alcohol and drug use
  • Social withdrawal from friends, family, and others
  • Extreme mood swings

Signs of imminent danger

  • Giving away belongings
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family
  • Mood shifts from despair to calm
  • Obtaining firearms or controlled substances
  • Talking, writing, or thinking about death
  • Self-harm behaviors

If you or someone else are experiencing these symptoms, talk to a sports psychologist, licensed therapist, or someone you trust. If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, get help immediately.

  • Call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
  • Find other emergency resources here.

What you can do as a student athlete

No amount of schoolwork or game pressure should be as important as your mental health and well-being. Here are few things other college and elite athletes have done that can help you maintain your mental and physical health: 

Seek a support system. It’s important to have people you can trust and talk to. Consider your teammates, coaches, a professor, family, friends, dormmates, or classmates. A licensed therapist can also be an important part of your support system. 

Find somebody in your circle, whether it be a teammate, friend, coach, or trainer and just be honest with them.” - Harry Miller, Ohio State University football

Find yourself outside of sports. Yes, sports can be a huge part of your life, but your life is more than that. Finding time to enjoy things outside of sports can help you connect with others and do things that you also enjoy. Alisha Gray, Atlanta Dream WNBA player, says that her professional life can be demanding, so “balancing my personal life with my professional life and learning how to set boundaries is really important.”

Have a game plan for coping. If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, knowing your triggers can help you understand why you’re having those feelings. Talking to a mental health professional can help you identify these triggers and develop healthy coping strategies.  Melissa Stockwell, veteran and Paralympian, finds that talk therapy has helped: “I have been given techniques to help keep me grounded in moments when I feel anxious and they have been extremely helpful.”

Check in on yourself. Take a pulse on your mental well-being regularly. Try breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness exercises to keep yourself grounded. If you need support and want to talk to someone, know that taking the first step to talk to a therapist can help you navigate your feelings and ensure that you’re taking care of yourself. 

“I would encourage other student athletes to utilize all resources they have to take care of themselves.” - Allie Skaggs, University of Arizona softball

Speaking up is a sign of courage

Acknowledging that you need help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is a sign of strength. Speaking to a licensed therapist can help you learn coping skills and alternate ways of thinking. It can give a support system for the times when you need it most. 

As a friend or family member, you can also benefit from talking to a mental health professional. They can help you talk to your loved ones who are at risk or in crisis to give them the support they need to seek professional help. To talk to a licensed therapist at SonderMind, start here

“Asking for help often appears contrary to being strong or wise, but it is more than often one of the strongest and wisest things to do.” - Harry Miller, OSU football

Get guidance throughout your mental health journey.

Stay connected and supported with the latest tips and information from SonderMind.