For student athletes, whose daily lives are dominated by their sport, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has been particularly disorienting. For Black student athletes, the stress of campus closures and “on again-off again” seasons is compounded by traumatic reminders of persistent racism, which can make 2020 feel like the most challenging contest of their lives.
The NCAA’s Student Athlete COVID-19 Wellbeing study, released in July of 2020, found that more than 50 percent of male and female athletes reported a sense of hopelessness at least once during the COVID-19 shutdown. Mental health issues were highest among respondents of color, those who are facing economic hardship, and those living alone.
Considering Black student athletes make up 32 percent of the college athlete population – 57 percent of all college football players and 64 percent of all college basketball players – higher education may need to get a stronger game plan when it comes to these students’ mental health.
Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, PhD, sees the events of 2020 as an opportunity to focus on an issue she believes has been under-examined and under-addressed in higher ed. Dr. Tran is an Associate Professor in the Counseling and Psychology Program at Arizona State University and heads the Tran Ethnic and Minority Psychology and Experiences Lab. Her work focuses on discrimination and its effect on mental health disparities, and she recently examined stress levels facing minority student athletes.
In her article in the American Journal of College Health, Tran and her co-author found that 78 percent of racial and ethnic minority student athletes reported some form of mental health need and only 11 percent of those athletes reported using mental health services in the past year. Tran’s research predates the events of this spring and summer, which heightens her concern for how these students, already at risk, are currently coping.
“I’m trying to bring people through what is already there for these students and overlay that with what’s happened over the last seven months,” she said.
Tran describes a cumulative effect. Student athletes are under enormous pressure with grueling schedules. They tend to focus on their body’s performance, not their mental health. They have difficulty with vulnerability and try to stay tough. After COVID-19 hit and seasons were either cancelled or uncertain, their whole identities were threatened. But for Black athletes, the anxiety runs even deeper.
“The athletic identity reflects an important value system and COVID-19 was a threat to that for athletes of all races,” said Tran. “But Black athletes have intersecting identities, so on top of that, they are seeing what’s going on in this country and asking themselves: ‘Does America value my identity?’ The evidence suggest that it does not.”
For Division 1 athletes, like those at the University of Pittsburgh, the year could not be more destabilizing. As a licensed clinical social worker psychologist assigned to the school’s student athletes, Kristen Mackel says she has never worked harder. With service utilization “through the roof,” her days and nights have been taken up with teletherapy sessions with anxious students. She and her colleagues spend a lot of time “reaching in” to connect with those most at risk. Many of them are student athletes of color.
“Our students are on fire right now,” she said. “We need to consistently remind them we are here.”
Pitt is one school that is taking student athlete mental health seriously. Well before the turbulence of 2020, Pitt moved from an out-patient mental health referral model to embedding counselors like Mackel into the athletic department to work directly with students and staff. The school is utilizing numerous strategies to help athletes attend to their mental health, just the way they would tend to a sports injury.
The effort remains a work in progress, but conversations with four Black athletes at the school suggest the program is having a positive impact in helping the students deal with these disturbing times. Their stories illustrate the similar challenges that come with their shared profiles, as well as the widely different perspectives they hold as individuals.
Finding your place
Matthew Wilson worked his whole life to be a student athlete at a Division I school. Now in his third year at Pitt, he competes in the 400-meter hurdle and other events in track and field. He thought he knew what the life of a student athlete would be like, but he now says he was unprepared for the rigors of the role.
“Everybody says that being a full-time student athlete is like having a job, but it wasn’t until I got here and I got fully into the system – practices, lift schedule, training room, nutrition center – that I realized this was true,” he said. “People talked to me about time management, but there wasn’t really any time left to manage. My schedule is all laid out for me and athletics really takes it all.”
By the second half of his freshman year, Matthew began to struggle. He says the move to college, being away from his family, the things that all freshmen experience, hit him like a delayed reaction.
“By the time our outside season came around, I was kind of drawn out. I was tired a lot. My sleep had gotten messed up. I was stressed out about my classes and some outside things to the point where my performance took a hit. I stopped running as fast. I didn’t feel well. When we entered the post-season, I was completely burned out.”
At first, Matthew resisted seeking help, thinking that when he went home he’d talk it over with his mother. When he didn’t feel better that summer, Mathew decided to seek help when he returned to school.
“I said, ‘Look, I’m an athlete here on the track team. I haven’t been doing well. I’d like to get some help with my anxiety, my depression. I want to know how to cope with all of it.’”
Matthew did get the help he needed and was having a strong sophomore year when COVID closed the campus in March. His season was cancelled. Being home in Virginia and taking classes online, he said, was “odd” but “Okay,” though the interruption caused him to reconsider his commitment to Pitt.
“I told my mom and dad I’m a little unsure about going back. Pitt is a very expensive school. There was this whole other area of stress for me because I’m an out-of-state student. I’m on scholarship but, even with that, it’s very expensive for me to attend Pitt.”
Matthew did decide to return to Pitt, but with a new resolve to expand his experiences on campus beyond just athletics and get the most out of what a university like Pitt has to offer. Shortly before he returned for summer training, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.
“That really changed everything for me,” he said. “The video was really hard to take. The first time I saw it I didn’t realize what I was seeing. I remember sitting with a friend of mine…who just broke down in tears. I didn’t cry, but I felt the pain in a very personal way. I saw my dad. I saw my uncle. I saw my younger brother. I saw how any single one of us could have been in that situation where it was simply the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong officer to interact with.”
George Floyd’s death accelerated Matthew’s desire to become a more active member of the Pitt community. He joined a group called “Panther’s Unite,” which advocates for a stronger diversity and inclusion agenda on campus. Members of the group have met with the president and his senior team and have held forums where they discuss what it’s like to be a Black student in America right now.
Matthew says the events of 2020 have lit an activist fire under him and have made him consider public office after graduation. As a Black student athlete, Matthew feels particularly compelled to speak out.
“When I think about those kids who are watching our conference championships on their desk computers, I want to say, ‘I did this thing and so can you. And when you achieve your dream to become a college athlete, you’ll understand it’s not just about athletics. It’s more than just running a race and getting time. It is an opportunity to get your voice heard before a very wide audience.’”
Multiple pressure points
When it comes to stress and anxiety, Cara Judkins believes she and her teammates have had their fair share. “You never want to say, ‘I have more to be depressed about than you do,’ but in this climate, it really feels like we do,” she said.
A senior on the women’s basketball team, Cara talked about the factors that already affect the mental health of college students, college athletes, and college athletes of color.
“On top of the stress that comes from being at college as an athlete, you have all this stress that comes from representing something bigger than yourself, bigger than your family,” she said. “You’re representing a team, which is representing an athletic department, which is representing a school, and that can really take a toll on a lot of people.”
Asked if this pressure is different than it is for her White peers, Cara said, “Yes, we have to deal with all this and simply existing as Black.”
Cara says that she knows many athletes struggle with depression, anxiety and body image problems, trying to fit the ideal standard of what athletes should be like, however unrealistic.
“You hear it all the time,” said Cara, describing the angst some athletes experience. “‘Coach said this to me, he must hate me. Oh my God, I gained or lost x pounds and I’m supposed to be in the lean group. I look different. Do I play different?’”
Despite these pressures, Cara says most athletes don’t ask for help until they are really struggling.
“There’s a stigma around asking for help, especially for athletes. You’re supposed to be strong all the time. You can’t show vulnerability because that’s associated with weakness.”
For Cara, who is immunocompromised, the school’s optional basketball season feels like another assault. Amidst anti-COVID restrictions, the school plans to allow students to opt out of the season and to ask those who do participate to sign an acknowledgement of the risks of playing, which Cara clearly views as a waiver.
“They have put us in an incredibly hard position – stay safe or lose everything you’ve worked for,” said Cara. “First of all, most athletes understand that when your coach tells you you have an option to do something, it’s understood that it’s a strong recommendation to still do it. And then you’re going to tell athletes who love the game that they can choose not to play and not see their best friends for an entire season? That affects people’s physical and mental health.”
Cara said the choice is even harder for some, like for teammates on scholarship who are afraid not to play because basketball is their ticket to college. In speaking with athletes on teams at other schools, Cara said, “We feel used – like they’re not looking at us as human beings.”
The killings by police and the protests and counter-protests that followed exacerbated and complicated the situation for Cara.
Cara said that for many athletes, the drive to protest is tempered by the sensitivity to uphold the brand, the school.
“I want to speak out. I want to raise awareness. But there’s always something in the back of my mind saying, ‘Wait, hold back, don’t be the troublesome Black girl.’”
Cara is still deciding if she will join Teach for America or go straight to graduate school after she leaves Pitt; she sees either choice as a way to make a big impact. She continues to encourage her teammates to seek help for their mental health, as she has, from the counselors at the athletic department. She also suggests that colleges do more to make mental health a regular part of an athlete’s regime, with more discussion around what to do when you or your friend is feeling anxious.
Asked whether she thinks change will come soon for Black Americans, she said, “No, I do not. This is just the beginning of a long road. This year has brought out a lot of ugly in a lot of people.”
Like everything he does, Tre Tipton works hard on his mental health. Having grown up in “a lot of different places,” the Panther wide receiver has experienced all of the stressors that come from being a high-profile athlete at a large university – fame, pressure, criticism and the myth that you are always okay.
“When you play football at a place like Pitt, it’s a different lifestyle. You have to be mentally ready for everything that comes your way,” he said.
Tre says that includes the perception that student athletes, particularly Black student athletes, are less interested in being students. Tre strives to defy the stereotype, but finds the pressure to be both an athlete and a scholar enormously challenging.
“You wake up at about 5 in the morning. You go to practice until about 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Then you go to class for the rest of the afternoon. By the time your day ends, it’s about 9. So from there, your time to study is from 9 to 3 a.m. Therefore, your social life is out the door.”
Tre said that, in addition to your life being laid out for you, student athletes are particularly trapped by social media, an inescapable alternate reality that can take a toll on their mental health.
“You can’t get away from it,” he said. “Social media allows student athletes to see everything people are saying about them. They see their names being tagged – put in certain areas they don’t even know about. They can read articles about themselves at any given moment.”
Tre says it can get to the point where what people are saying about you can be more important than your opinion of yourself. His coping mechanism is to find peace within himself. He and his best friend started an organization that helps their peers focus on their own strength. LOVE – Living Out Victoriously Everyday – gives people small gestures to practice each week that help boost their confidence and self-esteem.
As Tre describes it, “You take what you’ve learned on the field, the court, or whatever may be in your life, and you challenge yourself to be positive; be true to yourself.”
Tre believes these kinds of supports should be in addition to having psychologists readily available for student athletes. For Black athletes, he said, it helps if there are therapists of color or ones who are particularly trained in the different ways the mental health of students of color are impacted by their identities.
“As a Black person – a Black athlete – not everyone knows what you’re going through; not everybody is willing to understand what you’re going through.”
“A lot of little cuts.”
Chinaza Ndee is a senior who plays woman’s volleyball at Pitt. She was born in Nigeria and raised in Houston, Texas. When asked about her mental health as a Black student athlete, she spoke first about the pressures put on all athletes regarding living up to their personas.
“Every day is a battle because you’re up against such high-level athletes on your team and those you play against,” she said. “One of the things I faced personally with all this was feeling like I needed to be on 24/7. I thought that I could never show any form of vulnerability or weakness.”
Chinaza says when so much of your life has been what you play, your identity gets wrapped up in your sport. If your sport starts to slip, you can be especially hard on yourself. It’s something she says she is working on.
“You really have to force yourself not to rely on your performance to feel good about who you are, because you are going to have bad days,” she said.
The women’s volleyball season has begun at Pitt, albeit with a limited schedule and opponents within driving distance. Chinaza says she is just glad to be playing and feels comfortable with the safety precautions Pitt has put in place. She feels less comfortable about the pre-election political environment and the racial unrest of the past several months.
Volleyball is a predominantly White sport and, for Chinaza, an extension of a privileged upbringing, which included an elite private school education among mostly all-White peers. She is used to being “the only one” or “one of two or three” Black people in the room and on the court. It is a position that has made her less likely to speak out against the microaggressions she has endured and she feels “forever grateful,” despite her well-earned place in the world.
As close as she is to her teammates, she can’t always escape the hurt and distance that can come from being different. The killing of George Floyd and witnessing it on video was a particularly strong example.
“This incredibly jarring thing just happened, and I’m supposed to show up at practice and be emotionally steady in a way that my White teammates don’t really have to worry about,” she said.
Chinaza says that this year, she is letting people know that social justice is something that she is fighting for. She wants to use her platform and her privilege to make things better for people who don’t have her advantages. And she wants to remind people that even with her advantages, it still hurts.
“It’s like a lot of little cuts every day,” she said. “It’s small and it stings and then it goes away. But it adds up and all of a sudden, you’re standing there with all these cuts on yourself and you feel like you just have to keep going because they are so small, why would anyone complain? You almost feel like it’s your fault for being hurt as much as you are.”
Chinaza is a Natural Sciences major and plans to become a doctor.
These extraordinary young adults personify some of the larger challenges Mackel and her colleagues are working on, while affirming the importance of supporting the healthy development of such promising lives.
Mackel said student athletes arrive on campus with widely different backgrounds and experiences, which is why Pitt now has a three-credit course for first-year student athletes involving dialectical behavioral therapy that works on life skills, wellness and resilience in all facets of life. Mackel says it is an effort to level the playing field for any athlete recruited to Pitt that shows up less prepared to live independently and/or with less support from home.
According to Mackel, the school is doubling down on efforts to help Black athletes facing the recurring trauma of persistent racism, regardless of their social status. The school has created a staff position, much like a Title IX coordinator, for students to report to if they have experienced any form of racism, differential treatment, or uncomfortable situations. A new committee within the athletic department on diversity and inclusion has grown to about 50 people divided equally between staff and students.
Mackel agrees that more diversity and representation in the field of mental health is needed and sees an opportunity to strongly encourage student athletes to seek degrees and licensure that could dramatically change the demographic landscape of providers. Meanwhile, she believes it is imperative for all licensed clinicians to increase their efforts to become more culturally competent, aware of personal and professional biases, and be outwardly anti-racist.
It is worth noting that a new survey released by RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) found that 91 percent of college athletes and 95% of coaches and staff believe racism is a concerning issue in the country.
Involving coaches as partners in supporting the mental health of their players is critical, both from a health perspective and from a help-seeking perspective. At Pitt, training is a big part of the solution. Not only does Mackel and her team train athletic staff on mental health interventions, they talk frankly with students in front of their coaches about what they’re seeing and how to seek help. It is a message meant for both audiences.
Emphasizing who they are as people and as students is something Mackel said is so important to do with Black student athletes, especially at Division 1 schools, who pin so much of their success on going pro and making money.
Cheerleading their grades and advising on a “Plan B” alleviates this pressure and indicates that their value is more than just their athletic performance.
Mackel’s most effective strategy may simply be her presence. Her check-ins between sessions are a reminder to the students that there are adults who care about them and what they are going through.