College athletes are far from their mental health resources when they need them most – Bend Bulletin

Posted: April 19, 2020 at 8:44 am

This post was added by Alex Diaz-Granados

After the NCAA womens basketball season was canceled, along with all other winter and spring college sports, Carmen Tebbe Priebe headed to Carver-Hawkeye Arena anyway.

Shes a sports psychologist who works with the University of Iowa athletic department, and there she found gobsmacked players and coaches eating lunch, their final meal as a team.

Tebbe Priebe scanned their faces and began bracing not only for intense emotions, but for wide-ranging variability on how the news was being digested.

Most were in shock, their seasons or careers suddenly finished, and others were angry. A few, weary from balancing responsibilities and expectations from within the pressure-filled college sports machine, seemed relieved.

OK, Tebbe Priebe recalled thinking, she said in a telephone interview days later, whose identity is really wrapped up in athletics and is probably struggling right now? Who is going to a home situation thats probably not stable? Whos ready to move on? As a clinician, its this snapshot of everybodys story thats flickering in your mind, like: Where do I start?

College athletic programs only recently began making significant mental health resources available to athletes, another perk along with training tables and academic tutoring. But as the novel coronavirus pandemic has emptied campuses, dispersing nearly a half-million college athletes, its now another distant benefit at a time of high anxiety throughout the country.

The outbreak and ensuing stay-at-home guidelines have upended all aspects of college life: Students have moved back home, professors are teaching online, letter grades are getting ditched, and financial challenges have been exacerbated. Athletes facing the same abrupt transition must do so without the one activity that has been a constant since their middle school years or earlier.

Theres a multilayer crisis and a multilayer despair, said Alex Auerbach, the University of Arizonas director of clinical and sport psychology. I came here to compete, and this was supposed to be my best season, and now its being taken away from me. But I dont know how many of my teammates are coming back, so I dont know if I should come back or not. So all of those things are wrapped up in this experience, and the despair is wrapped up in making a decision and not having an answer because everyones trying to figure it out at the same time.

The NCAA does not regulate how programs approach mental health, and counselors who work for athletic departments face a challenging numbers game along with the occasional power struggle under normal circumstances. Chris Bader, who oversees the mental health and performance program at the University of Arkansas and is chair of the Collegiate Clinical/Counseling Sport Psychology Association, said his athletic department employs three full-time counselors, or one for every 155 athletes. Two decades ago at a different school, he said, the ratio was closer to 1,500 athletes for every counselor.

Regardless, the past few weeks have by no means been normal. Specialists, facing their own acute stresses, have scrambled to simulate a team environment and provide support during a catastrophe no one trained for. As much as anything, they are trying to remind coaches and athletes that even as theyre isolated, theyre not alone.

Im not really scared when theyre telling us theyre anxious, Bader said. Its the people I know are, who arent saying anything.

The day after the NCAA canceled all spring sports, Jamey Houle, one of four full-time mental health professionals in Ohio States athletic department, noticed an athlete fighting tears. She was a senior, her season and career finished, her future murky.

What am I going to do? she asked Houle, and this was among the first of many similar discussions in those blurry hours and days.

Like at Iowa, there was a range of colliding emotions, though the counselors interviewed for this story found themselves identifying a prevailing one: grief. All of it their playing careers, college experiences, justifications for putting off career decisions was just over. They thought theyd had more time.

Theres just anger and a sense of helplessness, said Houle, whose strategy in the beginning was to remind the athletes of their resilience and strength.

Nearly 2,000 miles away, Auerbach hurried to remind Arizonas athletes of the same. He reached out to athletes who had used the schools mental health services, then tried to think of clever ways to communicate with those who hadnt. He created a graphic and distributed it on social media, reminded coaches to mention the departments services during exit meetings and quickly scheduled a training for his staff on Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-compliant Zoom, the suddenly ubiquitous videoconferencing software.

Ive tried to go through every path humanly possible, Auerbach said. Weve just tried to remain as available as we possibly could.

Last year, Ohio State football coach Ryan Day aligned himself with an advocacy group tied to mental health awareness and revealed that his father had died by suicide. He became one of the latest of an increasing number of sports figures Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Chamique Holdsclaw who have spoken publicly about their struggles with mental health. Three months ago, LeBron James announced a partnership with a meditation app and said he sometimes struggles to sleep, which is common among athletes and has been linked to anxiety and depression.

Last month, not long after the campus shutdowns, Day offered suggestions in a two-minute video posted to Twitter for how to stay mentally healthy during the outbreak. Such awareness and transparency is still developing in the sports world. Less than a decade ago, a sports psychologist was assigned to work with a Division I football program. The person was granted access to practice, though it came with conditions: Remain super top secret, the person would recall later, and speak only if spoken to.

After a few days, the psychologist was introduced to the teams defensive coordinator, who demanded an explanation for why the person was there.

Get the f--- out, the defensive coordinator said after listening for a moment about how mental wellness can enhance on-field performance.

Even years later, the psychologist requested anonymity because the sports world is small and the individual feared professional retribution. And, indeed, many counselors have their own tales of a run-in with a skeptical coach or administrator, along with the balancing act of working alongside some of the most powerful people in sports. One kept hearing about a coach who believed therapy only invited drama into his program, and another said a coach pushing him to share the details of a players confidential session happens every day.

In the past decade, though, athletic department staffs have dramatically expanded amid a nationwide rise in hyper-specialization. Coaches no longer act as nutritionist, sleep specialist and problem-solver, because at many major programs, theres a dedicated staffer for that. The NCAA adopted legislation in 2017 that prohibits coaches from making final decisions on players health, and although it doesnt explicitly mention mental wellness, providers say the document effectively gave coaches permission to defer.

The athletics culture in general tends to be hypermasculine, even in a female sport: Rub some dirt on it and go, Houle said. That mentality has evolved.

Eventually, as the days passed, Tebbe Priebe spoke informally with friends in the mental health field, her own attempt at airing thoughts, and tried to disengage from the news.

If there were quiet moments, she knew they were fleeting. Not just because her 7- and 5-year-old could burst in at any moment. If some of Iowas athletes truly were responding to being sent home with grief, shock and denial would eventually give way to depression and acceptance. She had been unnerved initially by the quiet of those first days, of how few people attended the online support groups, but she suspected a wave was coming.

While she waited, Tebbe Priebe tried to reintroduce structure to her household routine and declutter her thoughts. She wasnt alone. Bader, in Arkansas, told himself it was appropriate to admit he couldnt answer every question. Auerbach, in Arizona, tried to ease anxieties by issuing reminders that there was time.

We dont have to solve all this today, Auerbach found himself saying to athletes, and himself.

Were treading water because we cant stop thinking about it, and, just too many plans gets you anxious if you dont follow through, Tebbe Priebe said. I do expect to have to reach out to student-athletes.

She paused, thinking about the coming weeks.

I just dont know, she said. Its so hard to say, because the culture is so different with every day. Im expecting, though, that were all going to stay very busy.

Read more from the original source:
College athletes are far from their mental health resources when they need them most - Bend Bulletin

Related Post
This entry was posted in Mental Health. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.