Programs and events assist athletes with mental and emotional health issues

By Molly Kutz

Mental health concerns for college student athletes nation-wide continue to be a concern. According to a 2022 study by the NCAA, mental exhaustion along with anxiety and depression “remain 1.5 to two times higher than identified before the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

In fact, during the spring of 2022, a total of five student athletes died by their own hands

Athletes face a rigorous schedule filled with practices, strength training, classes, homework, maintaining a social life, eating, and sometimes additional conditioning workouts. With all of these things packed into one day, it makes an onerous weekly schedule, especially when games—often on the weekends—are added to the mix for in-season athletes. 

To combat these mental health challenges, KU Department of Athletics has put together a series of mental health programs for spring 2023. The programs are intended to provide student-athletes with “access to resources, peer support groups, educational programs focused on anxiety and the creation of a sense of community,” said KU Director of Athletics Renee Hellert.

When asked about the program, Hellert said, “The impact of mental wellness on physical wellness is apparent. Coming out of the pandemic, we know that our student-athletes have struggled with mental wellness on an even higher level than before. On our campus, we have tried to focus our efforts on areas of concern that student-athletes shared with us through our department-wide mental health assessment in the fall [of 2022].”

For example, on Apr. 14, there is a program sponsored by IDEA (Inclusion Diversity Equity in Athletics), called Dinner and Discussion. The topics are social media use, misinformation, cyber vetting, branding, reputations, and authenticity. The last Diversity Dinner and Discussion topic in March was “mental health” and had about 150 student-athletes in attendance.  

The various programs and events will help make athletes aware of mental health issues and tactics to deal with existing anxieties and stresses. Topics of some programs include stress management, anxiety, and mindfulness. 

On Apr. 16, two more mandatory mental health workshops for student athletes will be held where Lo Myrick, a former PSAC student athlete and mental health expert, will work with student athletes on time management, anxiety, communication, stress relief, and competitive mindset. 

There is also a carnival on Apr. 30, where athletes will be invited to attend to experience different Athletic-Department-sponsored sports and to interact with other student athletes. 

Some of the events paired with Morgan’s Message,  which took place during Mental Health Awareness Week (Mar. 26 to Apr. 1). During this time, athletes can pledge to support one another and stop stigmatizing mental health by attending any home sporting event during this week.

Morgan’s Message is an organization that “strives to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health within the student-athlete community and equalize the treatment of physical and mental health in athletics,” according to its website.

Hellert said that she hopes “student-athletes will continue to feel comfortable talking about their mental well-being challenges. I hope they realize they are not alone and find support in one another.” 

These programs were created to raise awareness for mental health and were accomplished with the help of a few individuals including the Department of Athletics Mental-Wellness Task Force. which consists of coaches, support staff, trainers, and campus partners that meet to discuss trends, concerns, and plans for programming.

“We are also thankful for Bilal Salaam who is our department’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Adam Christian who is our Graduate Assistant in student-athlete development. Both work tirelessly to organize and execute much of our programming,” said Hellert.

The Athletic Department has worked hard to ensure the mental health of student athletes are being heard and helped, which is important to any athlete on the KU campus.

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