There is a mental health crisis in college sports. I know it first hand.

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It was January 2015 when Xavier University’s athletics department called a mandatory event for all student-athletes. Sitting in our sports center, we all migrated to our respective teams. None of us were told why we were there; on the stage was an isolated lectern and microphone.

Eventually a man came on stage and started talking. He was a former Division I football player on the fast track to the NFL until he got injured. Throughout college, he said, he struggled with severe depression.

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At the time, I was a second long distance and track runner. I was struggling to keep my place on the college list and simultaneously battling anemia and post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault – a situation I kept private except to close friends.

But at that time, I thought I couldn’t understand what the speaker was saying. I was not on a lucrative sports team or even close to becoming a professional athlete. I just wanted to represent my school and be the best runner I could be in college.

The speaker finally opened up the discussion to my fellow athletes – one even addressed the whole audience saying he was contemplating suicide after a bad season. But their words did not mark me after we left the sports center. Because once I walked into the reality we call a campus, my mind went back to the pressures I was dealing with – romantic crushes, the start of winter track season. It all clouded what I later learned was my depression.

More and more former and current student-athletes like harry miller and Elijah Wade talk about the intersections of mental health and their sports. Sadly, recent suicide deaths of female student-athletes — including Katie Meyer, Sarah Shulze and Lauren Bernet — raised more pressing issues. Above all, why? Is the performance pressure too extreme? Is access to mental health resources insufficient for student-athletes?

This could be due to many, if not all, factors, according to Josie Nicholson, a sports psychologist and counselor at the University of Mississippi.

“Student-athletes on campus are under more pressure to perform and excel,” Nicholson told me. “They live such busy schedules with so many expectations. …there’s not really much time to stop and process anything.

According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the prevalence rate of depression is higher among young adults, and college athletes face unique risk factors. In general, the rate of depression among women is higher than men, and studies to have found that female college athletes reported more depressive symptoms than male college athletes. And as the NCAA reports, student-athletes faced increased mental health issues during the coronavirus pandemic.

Another salient factor for Nicholson is that student-athletes are in their fundamental years of growth into adulthood. Most NCAA athletes are between the ages of 18 and 23 and discovering their identities.

Many grew up with dreams and talent, Nicholson said, and others around them “stop talking about who they are. are and emphasize what they To do. Their world is about making that dream come true and meeting those expectations. In middle school, this aspect of their identity becomes overemphasized, she added.

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Julie Amato, sports psychologist at Elite Mindset Sports and Princeton University, says female athletes, in particular, struggle with perfectionism. “In my experience working with male and female college athletes, female athletes are more concerned with comparison to others and more fearful of judgment and disapproval from others,” she said. “They tend to magnify their mistakes and shortcomings, and feel relieved instead of joyful when they succeed.”

Indeed, there are many layers to my own story, but the overriding constant in the chaos of my trauma was my identity as a student-athlete and, ultimately, a runner. Other traumas, including my assault, worsened and I developed an eating disorder, anxiety and depression.

The sports center where I practiced was no longer a place of relief but a playground that I dreaded. It was a reminder of the trauma that I couldn’t process.

In my freshman year, I quit the cross country and track and field team. Months later, I was hospitalized and on suicide watch, and eventually diagnosed with bipolar depression. Fortunately, my school had resources in place to accommodate my schoolwork. Professors and administrators consulted with me weekly and I had access to advice on campus. But not all schools have what mine did. And not every sports program has access to a sports psychologist – a professional I needed (and badly) needed as soon as I arrived on campus as a student-athlete.

At the time, I didn’t know how to ask for help; I didn’t want to let people down. But I was in so much pain that the expectation of competing at an elite level was insurmountable. I am grateful that people were able to help me. “Recognizing that you can stop, you can reach out” is the first step to coming out the other side, according to Nicholson.

Nicholson also says that to really help student-athletes requires “athletes to hear from coaches, everyone, what the resources are and encourage them to use those resources, while genuinely checking in with each other.”

Amato agrees that early detection of signs saves lives. “Working to de-stigmatize help-seeking within the culture of athletics is also a critical step,” she said. “Too often we hear there were no signs – which tells me the person was probably having internal difficulties but didn’t know how to talk about it or what to do about it.”

But above all, Amato says, people need to treat student-athletes as “human first”: “We need to question their lives outside of sport, show that you care about them and are invested in them. , regardless of how they do athletics.

Leaving a sport I really loved was, and still is, heartbreaking. But more heartbreaking to me now are the stories of suffering from current student-athletes. I eventually turned to advocacy work as a way to empower myself and others, and learned that many others were struggling with situations similar to mine.

At Xavier, our saying was “All for one and one for all”. Achieving real change for athletes will require all of us – the NCAA, universities and fellow students – to help each other. Because every individual deserves to be saved.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor on 741741.

Devi Jags is a co-founder of Sambar Kitchen and an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

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