Social workers in college sports empower student athletes through programming and counseling
The image of the collegiate student athlete is usually one of success and triumph: the roaring crowds, pep rallies, the winning touchdown or tie-breaking score. But in recent years, tragic incidents related to struggles with mental illness have emerged among student athletes across the nation.
In 2014, Ohio State University mourned the suicide of a wrestler-turned-football athlete who had suffered confusion and mood swings as a result of a concussion. A once-promising, former University of Virginia women’s basketball player was discovered living on the streets of Washington, D.C., as she struggled with schizophrenia. And in the fall of 2018, The New York Times disclosed the multiple suicide attempts of a freshman football athlete at the University of Washington navigating his first year as a student and athlete.
“A lot of people have this wrong idea that student athletes have it easy,” said Ashley Harmon (BSW 12, MSSW 13), assistant director of clinical behavioral health in Texas Athletics. “But they are an at-risk population, and it’s important for social workers to understand that these students also need services.”
There aren’t statistics proving that depression and anxiety are higher in student athletes compared to the general student population, Harmon said. But she has noticed that these conditions manifest in student athletes differently.
“I think student athletes’ anxiety can stem from pressure.. Or it may be a part of who they are, but the competitive environment increases it or brings it out,” Harmon said. “Going from being the star high-school student-athlete to a large university comes with a lot of challenges, so it’s important to provide them the resources and support necessary to manage the added pressure.”
As the struggles of student athletes become more apparent on college campuses, schools across the country are prioritizing mental health in athletics programs. Texas Athletics, however, is the first of such programs to establish a partnership with a school of social work in order to accomplish this goal.
Harmon was hired in 2015 to manage clinical services by providing counseling to student athletes and contracting specialized therapists to do the same, when needed. Emmett Gill, a professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, joined in 2017 as director of student-athlete wellness, with the goal of developing programs that best benefit student athletes — so far these include an injury support group, a transitions programs for sophomores and juniors, and a substance abuse prevention program. Harmon and Gill are the backbone of the Behavioral Health department, which is overseen by Allen Hardin, executive associate athletic director for Sports Medicine.
“As social workers, we bring a person-in-environment perspective, which means that we focus on the student athlete as a whole,” said Gill. “We evaluate and address their needs as individuals, but we also look at how their environment might be affecting them. We look at what is happening off the field as well as on the field.”
Gill said that, thanks to this broader perspective, social workers are able to help student athletes address challenges that may stem from their own personality and family history as well as from their immediate team and college environment and the larger, systemic context — everything from the many rules and regulations that affect student athletes to the cultural demands placed on sport players and the pressures of being constantly commented on in social media.
The University of Washington noticed how Texas handled mental health services in athletics and wanted to implement a similar model, said Claire Hipkens (MSSW ‘18), the first director for student wellness for intercollegiate athletics at UW. She credits her experience as a social work student intern at Texas Behavioral Health for preparing her to oversee mental health services and programming for the 650 student athletes on the Seattle campus.
“People think I’m doing sports psychology, which is valuable and has its place, but it’s quite different from what I do,” Hipkens said. “As social workers, we’re able to mobilize in a way that looks at all of the possible issues that could be affecting a student athlete. I’m so thankful to Emmett and Ashley, and I feel like I learned so much that I was able to bring to my his position.”
Having a parent with cancer, or working through sexual identity, or struggling with body image — these common challenges that affect students in general also affect student athletes, Hipkens said. The difference is that the latter face the added pressure of performing well in their respective sports.
“I can’t imagine having thousands of people watching me play and tweeting about me missing a field goal,” Hipkens said.
A lot is expected from student athletes at top tier universities, Harmon said. They perform for their coaches, their families, and crowds of thousands of people, all while making sure to fulfill the requirements for keeping their athletic scholarship — most people don’t realize these scholarships are renewed on an annual basis.
“Lots of athletes have perfectionist tendencies, and the athlete identity is always a struggle,” said Harmon. “Many of them have been doing sports since they were eight years old, and they have been told to do well, get a sports scholarship, go to the Olympics, go pro. There’s a high demand to perform.”
Although anxiety and depression are among the top issues that student athletes struggle with, Harmon said, others might come to college with past trauma from their childhood or home lives. Some struggle financially despite having an athletic scholarship.
“A lot of students fully depend on their scholarship check, and many of them are trying to support their families as well,” Harmon said. “This becomes financial stress for them, because their check obviously is not huge.”
Harmon added that students in sports like rowing, swimming, and track are at risk for eating disorders because they have to meet weight requirements. She also has had the experience of providing support for suicidal student athletes, and helped them to “come out of a very dark place.”
“I’ve seen lots of students turn that around,” she said.
There’s a common misconception that student athletes are tough and not open to talking about their feelings, Hipkens said. While that may be the case for some, she thinks the culture is shifting and has seen many student athletes invested in making mental health a priority. This particular set of students possess added resiliency and adaptation skills because of their sports training.
“You can see a lot of successes with student athletes, when in some other populations it might be harder to see that,” Harmon said. “Some of them are great at using the skills they learned in counseling in other areas of their life.”
Empowering Student Athletes at Texas
An array of student athletes from different sports appear in a public service announcement video for the Substance Abuse Prevention Program (SUPP) launched for the Texas Athletics Behavioral Health department.
A Texas Track & Field athlete warns that getting drunk one time can cause you to lose 14 days of training gains. A different athlete chimes in to add that 50 percent of college athletes never use alcohol while in season.
“Don’t try to be an All-American and all-6th Street,” quips another, referencing the popular downtown bar district in Austin.
Social work student Todd Smith helped write and direct this video during his internship in the Texas Athletics Behavioral Health department in Fall 2017. The SUPP program is one of several initiatives that Smith worked on under Gill’s supervision.
The SUPP leadership board consists of 15 students who lead events throughout the year to promote substance abuse awareness. The students focus on communicating how substance abuse affects athletic performance as opposed to simply highlighting the illegality of it, Smith said.
An additional benefit to participating in the program is that student athletes can combat self-isolation, a potential challenge caused by the strictly regimented schedules of an athletics program.
“Through SUPP, these students get to work with athletes from different sports, and they love opportunities to interact with people from other teams,” Smith said.
Hipkens said that she’s had the opportunity to work with a similar student-led initiative at UW: Student-Athletes Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (SAASHA). The men’s and women’s rowing teams formed the group to change the cultural perceptions regarding sexual violence among student athletes.
“It’s making a major impact on educating student athletes,” Hipkens said. “The student-led aspect of it is very powerful. It’s a good example of how incredible it can be to work in with this population.”
Beyond the Field
Smith likes to think that his job in the Texas Athletics Behavioral Health also includes letting students know that social work is very versatile as a profession, and that one possible career path is to work in athletics.
”When I meet students who want to stay in athletics but also have a social work mindset, I tell them that there are options for them beyond the field, and social work can be one of them,” Smith said.
A goal for the Behavioral Health Department is to help student athletes realize that they are more than athletes and give them space to explore other aspect of their identities, Gill said.
“For example, we were working on a branding exercise in which students had to design a logo to represent them after UT,” Gill recalled. “And one of the student athletes turned out to be this incredible artist that no one knew about! Everyone ended up asking her to please make their logos.”
Exploring and embracing an identity that goes beyond the sport they play is particularly important when student athletes experience an injury and can no longer perform, which can sometimes lead to an identity crisis. At Texas Athletics, Gill launched Team Grit, a support group for injured athletes, to help address these issues.
Gill said that giving student athletes the space to explore different aspects of their identity — a given among college students — is also beneficial to prepare them for a life after college that may or may not include playing a sport professionally.
“These are things that are going to help them off the field and in the classroom,” Gill said. “With our transitions program, which is for sophomore and junior athletes, we want to prepare them for life after UT, making sure they have their resumes, they go to job fairs, and help them figure out what they want to do.”
A 2017 NCAA rule mandates weekly time off, with no training, for student athletes.
“Before this rule, men’s basketball had 20 days off for the whole year. 20 days out of 365 days! And these students are only 18 years old. Then people wonder why they have not developed these other identities,” Gill said.
Gill wants the the Behavioral Health team help student athletes use some of this time off to take advantage of the many opportunities on the UT campus for personal enrichment and community engagement.
“The campus calendar comes every day,” Gill said. “We are looking for ways to shorten it, give it to our student athletes and tell them, ‘You get four days off a month. Go explore the Forty Acres and the great things happening here. If you take advantage of this, you will leave here a more rounded person.”
By Lynda M. Gonzalez. Illustrations by Renee Koite.