With competition on hold, athletic departments zero in on student-athletes’ mental health

5C athletic departments have implemented practices to encourage open conversations and a lasting prioritization of mental health. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

With practice and competition still on pause for both Pomona-Pitzer and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps athletes, the athletic departments are focused on conditioning student-athletes’ mental health as much as their physical health.

The pandemic has separated hundreds of 5C athletes from the teams and sports that give them support, community and routine.

“That’s my escape from any mental fog that I’m in,” football athlete Vaish Siddapureddy PO ’22 said. “Whether it’s working out or running with my team, that workout is my escape,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have that anymore, because our seasons are gone.”

Student-athletes use mental health services at a much lower rate than non-athletes despite having similar risk factors to other demographics. A May NCAA report of 37,000 student-athletes’ responses found that rates of student-athletes’ mental health concerns “in most instances” were 150 to 250 percent higher than previous NCAA survey reports.

To address the need to deliver on their commitment to support the mental health of athletes, the 5C athletic departments have implemented practices to encourage open conversations and a lasting prioritization of mental health.

‘More than just lip service’: Mental health at P-P

P-P Athletic Director Miriam Merrill joined the department over the summer and came in with focuses on inclusion and mental health. She wanted to use her sports psychology background to prioritize not solely the athletic and academic student but the “holistic student” who can also prioritize mental wellness. 

“[The pandemic] has shifted us in a way, in that the sport experience is not the defining factor this semester,” Merrill said, alluding to P-P’s shift toward mental health’s being this semester’s defining factor in the department.

Matt Wilson, chair of the P-P Mental Health, Wellness and Performance Committee, said P-P has implemented new weekly drop-in hours for its student-athletes to have a safe space and talk to their respective coaches or an MCAPS psychiatrist. Wilson sends these voluntary drop-in hours in a weekly email inviting athletes to attend, even just for a casual check-in. 

“When students aren’t in front of you, it’s often harder to notice changes.” — Pomona-Pitzer Athletic Director Miriam Merrill

Along with holding this space for athletes, the department has planned to host events with guest speakers, like sports psychologist and Pomona parent Carmen Alonso, to speak with the athletes about mental health at virtual events.

The department is also working specifically with the P-P Student-Athlete Advisory Committee on other initiatives to publicize resources available to any student, not just athletes. By using platforms like Instagram, Twitter and other social media, P-P hopes to encourage an open conversation about mental health. 

In May, SAAC held a Mental Health Week on the P-P SAAC and Pomona-Pitzer Instagram, where students were pointed to themed lists of resources and supportive statements from coaches.

Working through the pandemic, Wilson said, “has been challenging.” But a forced stop of competition has given him time to focus on the mental health committee itself. 

“I look at that as a good thing, because now we can start working on the ideas and tasks and changes and trying to get them to come to fruition,” Wilson said.

Wilson also represents the athletic department on its behavioral intervention team. If coaches notice a student-athlete of concern, the athlete is discussed at coaches’ meetings and then reported back to Merrill and the behavioral intervention team to move forward in supporting that athlete, Wilson said.

The week of Oct. 24, P-P student-athletes will be sent a survey to assess how they are doing and if they feel there is a lack of support from the athletic department. The survey will check in with students’ mental health as well as their feelings toward diversity, equity and inclusion within their department and their team.

“When students aren’t in front of you, it’s often harder to notice changes. And so [this survey] will give us a gauge to ask how students are and … largely inform a lot of the programming we will do moving forward,” Merrill said.

Coaches are also looking at ways they can better support athletes’ mental health. The P-P athletic department recently created a coaches’ Mental Health Committee made up of coaches, staff members and athletic trainers to have constant conversations about how they can better support student-athletes. 

“I think what’s great about the [coach’s] committee is that because it’s made up of so many people, it shows … that we are all invested in supporting our student-athletes,” Merrill said. “The formation of the committee showed that [the commitment to mental health] is more than just lip service. Our folks are working to get things done.”

Mental health at CMS is an ‘essential component’ of athletes’ wellness 

CMS Athletic Director Erica Perkins Jasper said the mental health of CMS athletes is an “area of emphasis” for herself and CMS staff — without mental health, physical health is jeopardized, Jasper said.

“The psychological and emotional well-being of student-athletes at CMS is an essential component of overall health and wellness. It is extremely important to our student-[athletes’] physical well-being,” Jasper told TSL via email.

With over 500 student-athletes, maintaining a strong presence in a virtual semester has been “challenging” for Jasper, but the department has been working to build a network of mental health support in the competitive downtime.

CMS has partnered with Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College and Scripps College student affairs staff to create a CMS Student-Athlete Mental Health Committee, Jasper said. The committee is led by the CMS sports medicine team and gathers CMS staff members, coaches and student-athletes.

The group’s goals are to connect CMS athletes, coaches and staff to existing mental health resources, to “build and grow relationships with campus and 7C mental health partners” and to identify and focus on specific mental health topics to discuss and cover with athletes. The committee is also creating long-term mental health-centered programming for the coming semesters.

Much of the CMS’ mental health programming has taken place on social media, on their Instagram account and CMS-affiliated accounts, like CMS Sports Medicine and CMS Recreation. Programming has included a CMS Resource List, Mental Health Awareness Week and the #3Day initiative, a partnership with the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation to “raise mental health awareness, destigmatize mental illness and provide quality resources to student athletes nationwide” during the inaugural College Football Mental Health Week. 

“My goal is to help create an environment for them at CMS that augments their college experience at CMC, HMC, or Scripps,” Jasper said. “For me, I get a lot of joy from interacting with our student-athletes and seeing them grow.”


Looking ahead 

Both P-P’s and CMS’ mental health committees are newly formed, but students and staff alike are encouraged by the departments’ commitment and willingness to help. 

“Being able to tell your coach, ‘Coach, I’m not here mentally,’ without having to be worried about how [your] playing time is going to be affected is huge.” — Vaish Siddapureddy PO ’22

Siddapureddy, who is also the student chair of the P-P SAAC Mental Health Committee, said, “I found it very encouraging that as soon as AD Miriam came in, she instituted a mental health committee within the coaches.” 

Moving forward, Siddapureddy said SAAC wants to make broaching the subject of mental health with teammates and coaches as easy as it was for him to speak to his coach.

“I think for each team and each group of coaches can do better [by] just talking about it to their athletes,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of talking about it to your athletes.”

Siddapureddy’s coach made it clear that “it’s OK if you come into practice one day saying, ‘Coach, it was a hard day mentally.’” That understanding, Siddapureddy said, is “one of the biggest things” he wants to work on in the SAAC Mental Health Committee.

“I think that’s so important because so many athletes are afraid to tell their coach [about mental health] because they’re afraid it might jeopardize their playing time or their spots,” he said. “But being able to tell your coach, ‘Coach, I’m not here mentally,’ without having to be worried about how [your] playing time is going to be affected is huge.”

Merrill refers to mental health as a spectrum — it’s “very normal” for people to be anywhere on the spectrum of wellness, and giving student-athletes the resources to seek help is what P-P aims to achieve.

“But what’s most important is that we know [that] when they slide to the end and they’re just not feeling well, that they know the resources they have available and can utilize them,” she said.

If students were on campus this fall, Merrill would still be implementing these practices this semester — which is also her first semester as athletic director at P-P.

“And then it would be a lot easier because we aren’t … getting students on another Zoom. We could do it during practice, after practice or just add it to what students are already doing and connect it to the natural occurrences that happen on campus.”

P-P is currently working with the student affairs department on the beginning stages of developing a wellness committee to keep the conversation going. Merrill hopes it will be a way to support students without staying stagnant.

“I think there’s great stuff going on,” Wilson said. “We just have to keep moving forward.”

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