North Dakota State Athletics doesn’t have a specific policy in place for dealing with the mental health of student athletes. But there sure is a strategy.
Scott Woken, NDSU’s director of sports medicine, said the mental health of student athletes has been a concern since he came into his job in 1989.
In fact, he said the athletes go through a multitude of mental health issues on a daily basis.
“First of all, they’re a student, so they’ve got to keep their studies and grades up,” Woken said. “Second of all, they’ve got to perform at a peak level on a daily basis to keep their spot on a team, keep the scholarship or help the team win.”
The mental health concerns Woken has come across in his 26 years varies greatly, including depression, mood disorders, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse disorders.
Usually, coaches or trainers pick up on signs of mental struggles, like if a player is usually on time and suddenly starts being late to practices or team meetings, if they’re energetic in practice and then they make a 180 turn or if they begin to not shower or shave.
Director of women’s athletics Lynn Dorn said pointing athletes to the right resources, like the counseling center in Ceres Hall or the clinic at the Wallman Wellness Center, goes a long way.
“We believe mental health is a component for all students,” Dorn said. “We want the athletes to have a really positive experience when they’re here and make sure we’re assisting that.”
Woken said some student athletes don’t want to be even seen by their peers going to the counseling center on campus. These athletes can go to Sanford Health, which NDSU has an official partnership with, for problems including mental illness.
If that doesn’t work, student athletes may even be set up with independent councilors.
NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said by time spending time with the student athletes, coaches, trainers and even administrators can pick up when a certain athlete is not mentally well.
“We get to know their personality and their body language,” Larsen said. “At that point we can say a certain athlete has been acting different lately and we’ll see what’s going on.”
There are certain sports that are tied to specific mental illnesses, Woken said. Golfers are prone to yips, or involuntary wrist spasms when trying to focus on putting.
One of the biggest mental roadblocks, Woken said, is when athletes are dealing with physical injuries that keep them from playing.
“If you see someone get a knee injury, you think well ‘Why don’t you just put on a knee brace?’” Woken said. “What people don’t see is that person dealing with long-term rehab and recovery.”
Woken said coaches need to keep injured players involved with the team as much as possible. When these players lose their normal environment is when it’s most tough.
“That breaks their routine,” Woken said. “That’s when it becomes a mental stressor for them. We’re trained to recognize the signs and symptoms when something is going on.”
Long-term rehab, Woken said, is toughest, as everything in life becomes more difficult for the student athlete to cope.
“When you’ve got somebody on crutches in the middle of winter,” Woken said, “it gets harder to get to class, drive your car, get to rehab or get to the dining center because now you’re on crutches and you’ve only got one leg. It becomes a stressor not only physically, but mentally.”
Woken said concussions aren’t the biggest concern for football, but it becomes a mental issue when healing for getting back to playing.
“Athletes have to also return to learn because of the symptoms,” he said. “They can have disfunction in memory, reading, concentration, writing when trying to take notes in class or even reading a book. They can have all of those issues on top of the actual physical issues of dizziness, headaches, unsteadiness or lack of balance.”
Staying on top of the injuries, school work or whatever mental struggles come up is Woken’s biggest tip.
“If you’re a student athletes and you’re taking four or five classes and you’ve got to do a quiz, test, paper or project before they leave,” Woken said, “it’s a big stressor.”
But finding the time to do everything, Larsen said, isn’t easy.
“It’s all about trying to get ahead of things,” Larsen said. “Being a student athlete is tough today because there’s a lot of pressures and demands, academically, in their personal life or athletically.”
Sometimes student athletes may try going without sleep, which is a vital factor for not only mental, but physical ability as well. Woken said he recommends student athletes get at least six or seven hours of sleep a day.
But that’s not as simple when the team is traveling across the country for games while a project is due before the trip.
Then, pile on boyfriend/girlfriend concerns, school, life at home, finances and especially finals week and it’s more added weight on the athletes’ shoulders.
When trying to identify mental illness, Woken said, the first concern is if they’re alright physically, and then second, he and staff members ask if there is something going on mentally.
For coaches and trainers, Woken said, they begin to ask a lot of questions when obvious signs come up.
“At this job, you spend a lot of time with the student athletes and you kind of know what they’re like,” Woken said. “We know what their personalities are and what their schedule looks like. Before they even come to us, we can pick up that there’s something not right.”
Larsen, who began his job in September, said one of the easiest ways to get close to student athletes is simply by being available.
That’s when he gets to know their personalities and when mental illness is starting to become a concern.
“I want them to know I’m there to support them,” Larsen said. “I want them to know I care about them and their experience. That’s how you do it: by being there and letting them know you care about them.”