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Black Student-Athlete Summit raises awareness about mental health

Panelists educate, encourage attendees to be more proactive in conversations about mental health

Sports psychologist Angel Brutus noticed one of her student-athlete clients motioning for her to come over during a post-practice team huddle. The team had just concluded a great practice, during which the athlete, dominant and focused, received praises for performance from teammates.

But upon reaching the athlete, Brutus immediately recognized there was a problem.

“The athlete was having a panic attack,” Brutus explained. “They had arousal levels so high that, from the coach’s perspective, they were on point. But because the athlete and I had been working with each other and they understood my role with the team, they were able to pull me to the side. They couldn’t talk. I had to intervene in getting their arousal levels low enough so they can articulate what was going on with them.”

This is only one example of the countless situations Brutus and other health professionals have encountered while working with student-athletes. In a two-day session at the Black Student-Athlete Summit in Austin, Texas, a number of health professionals educated and engaged attendees in discussions focusing largely on the mental health and well-being of student-athletes.

In 2014, a survey conducted by the American College Health Association found that about 30 percent of the 195,000 respondents reported feeling depressed in 12 months, and 50 percent reported feeling overwhelming anxiety during the same period. There was also a correlation between anxiety and depression, and poor athletic performance, low grades, substance abuse and suicide.

A nine-year analysis of the NCAA resolutions database showed that suicide was the third-leading cause of death among college-age individuals and the second-leading cause of death among college students.

Caroline Brackette, an associate professor of counseling at Mercer University who works closely with student-athletes, found that one of the issues that might deter college athletes from seeking help is the lack of willingness to express themselves, which may stem from the idea that seeking help and dealing with mental health issues are taboo, especially in the black community. Brackette believes one way for counseling and therapy to become the norm is if people, especially student-athletes, view mental health the same way they view their physical health.

“If an athlete gets injured, they’re going to go see a doctor to get medication or to figure out what needs to be done to help heal whatever has been injured,” Brackette said. “It’s the same thing with their counseling, their mental and emotional health. If something’s not working there, yes, still pray about that, but there may be a counselor who is sort of like that doctor or that coach who’s going to help you deal with the issues you’re not able to deal with. It doesn’t replace prayer and your faith, but it does supplement it and help you to get through it.”

Brackette also noticed a disconnect when peers and those in positions of authority attempt to distinguish between who the athletes are in their sport and who they are as individuals.

“One of the things that I started to see a lot is that they do not have outlets to talk about issues that are happening with them,” Brackette said. “They didn’t have a support system. Some of them felt isolated on campus. There was the stereotype of being a black student-athlete. Not a student, not just an athlete. You’re the black student-athlete. With that came a lot of negative stereotypes and images that a lot of people have. Having someone they could talk to honestly about what was going on, what they were afraid of, what they were stressed about was beneficial for them. There was also this stigma that if I seek help, I’m seen as weak.”

When the latter occurs, college students are more likely to withdraw and retreat to whatever will ease the pain the fastest. College students and student-athletes who do suppress their emotions or suffer with undiagnosed mental health issues are more prone to turn to drug use, especially if painkillers are easily accessible to student-athletes who have been injured.

A NCAA survey revealed that 23 percent of college athletes reported receiving a prescription for a pain medication and 6 percent reported using an opioid without a prescription in the previous year.

A common point all panelists stressed was urging coaches to be more involved in the personal lives of their athletes. Whether it’s prescription drug use or anxiety attacks, panelists believe coaches and training staffs should be more equipped and proactive when looking for signs of mental distress.

“When you have coaches who also understand the importance of a player’s mental and emotional health, that helps because when the students see the coaches saying, ‘OK, you need to get some extra assistance,’ they’re more likely to want to do it,” Brackette said. “There’s a need to raise awareness and talk about mental health the same way we do physical health.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.