GW, NCAA Tackle Mental Health Issues

Workshop on campus highlights unique challenges among student-athletes.

Coach Mike Lonergan
Coach Mike Lonergan sits in on the recent workshop on student-athlete health and wellness. (William Atkins/GW Today)
May 04, 2016

By James Irwin

David Wyrick was on the men’s basketball team at Elon College in 1993. It was a tough season. The team lost its top shooting guard to an ACL injury. Then the group lost a second player: a starting forward who did not show up for the team bus the morning of the conference tournament.

The head coach boarded the bus and told the team the player had overdosed the night before and was in the hospital.

“He said, ‘He let you guys down. What a selfish act. Let’s put it behind us and go to the tournament and do well,’” said Dr. Wyrick, who today serves as director of the Institute to Promote Athlete Health & Wellness at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

“We learned later that our coach did not know that this teammate had a history of depression,” Dr. Wyrick said. “He did not know that substance abuse was a possible outcome of that depression.”

There was no rallying around this teammate, and no celebration of his eventual return to the team months later, Dr. Wyrick said Tuesday at a workshop on student-athlete health and wellness hosted by the George Washington University, the NCAA and UNC-G.

Nobody knew how to handle the situation.

Student-athletes: A unique group

Understanding mental health and wellness—especially as it pertains to student-athletes—is an evolving subject, Dr. Wyrick and colleagues said Tuesday. It also is a topic that has elevated to the top of discussion in the industry.

“Everyone has been talking about the No. 1 medical issue—concussions,” GW Athletics Director Patrick Nero said, referencing a lecture he attended a few years ago featuring Brian Hainline, chief medical officer for the NCAA. “But the topic that no one had been talking about up until a few years ago was mental health.”

Though mental health issues take many forms—including depression, anxiety and eating disorders—there are common themes that bubble to the surface, especially among college athletes, said Ashley Frazier, a Ph.D. candidate at UNC-G.

Academic and athletic responsibilities, mixed with the personality types of student-athletes—often high-achieving, “type-A” leaders who are used to success—can create unique challenges, said Amber Cargill, assistant director of training and education for GW Mental Health Services.

For coaches and teammates, identifying a problem is one of those challenges.

“Someone who is in mental distress, usually athletics is the last thing to go, because they put so much energy and investment into that identity and that part of their lives,” Dr. Cargill said. “So you may be hearing or seeing things from other parts of their lives. That may be your signal—their sleep and appetite may be impacted or their routine may be disrupted, they might miss a couple of classes or see a drop in academic performance.”

It is important also to understand the overlap among student-athletes and college students in general, she said.

“They’re kids,” Dr. Cargill said. “In terms of mental health, this is the age when mental illness starts to come out, whether you are a student-athlete or not.”

Creating a better culture

Building a better culture in sports regarding mental health services and support requires a certain amount of normalizing, Dr. Wyrick said. A better understanding of mental health issues reduces stigma.

That is part of the NCAA’s current push to provide more resources and best practices in wellness, mental health, nutrition and other related areas. The organization named Dr. Hainline as its first chief medical officer in 2012. Today he serves as senior vice president and oversees the NCAA’s Sport Science Institute.

Dr. Hainline and the NCAA published “Mind, Body and Sport,” in 2014 and released a list of best practices to support student-athlete mental wellness earlier this year.

“There are various disciplines in the room,” said Mary Wilfert, associate director of the NCAA. “We have coaches, we have athletic administrators and people from across campus. One of the things the best practices does is to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to this.”