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It's Okay To Get Help!

Written by: Jonathon Coren, Ph.D., Elizabethtown College

I had the opportunity to hear NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline give the keynote address at the 2013 Faculty Athletics Representatives Association (FARA) Annual Meeting and Symposium. I was surprised to learn that mental health issues are one of the major concerns of student-athletes. After having some time to reflect on Dr. Hainline’s presentation, I was able to articulate why this is so. Many students have been heavily managed by their parents before transitioning to college and haven't had the opportunity to fail. The pressure that this generation is under to succeed has also added to their stress levels. Most college campus counseling centers are overwhelmed by the number of students seeking counseling and treatment for a variety of mental health concerns. Also, many student-athletes struggle with the transition to the academic rigors of college and acquiring effective time management skills both in-season or out-of-season.

In any given year, approximately twenty percent of the adult population will experience a mental illness. One percent of all adults have bipolar disorder and one percent of adults have schizophrenia. Many disorders such as unipolar depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia usually manifest during the late teens to early twenties. Therefore, it is highly likely that a student-athlete on any campus will have their first episode during college.

It is of critical importance that members of the athletics department as well as faculty and staff can quickly recognize the symptoms of different mental illnesses. Someone in the throes of a depressive episode will present with insomnia, poor concentration, anxiety, a general lack of interest in their studies and life and could even have suicidal ideations. During the manic phase of bipolar disorder, the individual will have feelings of elation, hyperactivity, low attention span, poor judgment and risk-taking behavior. Someone presenting with schizophrenia will demonstrate thought processing issues, have persecution delusions, auditory hallucinations and inappropriate emotional responses.

The athletics department, faculty and staff need to strongly encourage the student-athlete dealing with a mental illness to seek help during the early stages of an episode. I recommend that the student be escorted to campus counseling services or other mental health professionals so that the appropriate treatment can be initiated immediately. The student-athlete needs to be reassured that having a mental illness is no different than having a physical illness. Both types of diseases have a biological basis and can be treated effectively. Coaches should build an environment of trust that lets student-athletes know that it is okay to get help. Ideally, trained mental health professionals should educate the institution in order to remove the stigma of mental illness and to educate students, student-athletes, faculty, staff, coaches and athletic trainers about this issue.

Currently, suicide is the second highest cause of death among the college-age population.  Most college campuses have had to deal with the suicide of one or more students. My school, Elizabethtown College had a student-athlete commit suicide several years ago. It is my hope that future suicide attempts will be greatly reduced by every institution taking a holistic approach to student wellness.

On a personal note, I have been dealing with bipolar disorder since I was seventeen. I had to take two medical leaves during college to manage my deep depressions. My second leave occurred when I went off of my medication. I went manic in the spring and then into a deep depression in the summer. After this episode, I came to the realization that I needed to be on medications for life to manage this illness. Once the appropriate drugs and doses were established, I have been able to manage my illness quite well. I was able to obtain my Ph.D. in Genetics from Cornell University, and am currently an Associate Professor at Elizabethtown College where I have served as the faculty athletics representative (FAR) since 2005.

I am on the board of directors of the Mental Health Association of the Capital Region of Pennsylvania and the vice president of the board of directors of Compeer of Lebanon County. I enjoy educating the public and advocating for mental health awareness. I also incorporate my own story into the curriculum of my biology courses to demonstrate to my students that there is no need to be ashamed of having a mental illness. Several students have reached out to me throughout my years at Elizabethtown College about their own struggles.

Managing the disorder is not easy, though. I’ve been forced to combat side effects. Unfortunately, being on lithium for over twenty years destroyed my thyroid and reduced my kidney function. I had to switch medications and suffered two more manic and depressive episodes several years ago. Currently I have been fine for six years. Having bipolar disorder is a condition that I manage, but I never let my illness define who I am! 

References

"Bipolar Disorder." National Institute of Mental Health. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web. 09 May 2014.

"Schizophrenia." National Institute of Mental Health. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web. 11 May 2014.

Turner, James C., MD, and Adrienne Keller, Ph.D. "Leading Causes of Mortality among American College Students at 4-year Institutions." APHA 139th Annual Meeting and Exposition. American Public Health Association, 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 12 May 2014.

May is Mental Health Month

For 65 years, Mental Health America and affiliates across the country have led the observance of May is Mental Health Month by reaching millions of people through the media, local events and screenings. The 2014 May is Mental Health Month theme is “Mind Your Health.” The goals are to build public recognition about the importance of mental health to overall health and wellness; inform people of the ways that the mind and body interact with each other; and provide tips and tools for taking positive actions to protect mental health and promote whole health. For more for information on May is Mental Health Month, visit http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may.

About Jonathon Coren, Ph.D.

Jonathon Coren graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Biology and a minor in Spanish in 1983. He obtained his Ph.D. in Genetics from Cornell University in 1991. He then did an academic postdoc in MaryAnne Bjornsti's lab at Thomas Jefferson University from 1991 to 1993 and an industrial postdoc in Nat Sternberg's lab at DuPont Merck Pharmaceuticals from 1993 to 1997. He was an adjunct professor in the Biology department at Saint Joseph’s University from 1997 to 1999. He was an assistant professor in the Biology department at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma from 1999 to 2002. In 2002 he came to Elizabethtown College as an Assistant Professor. He is currently an Associate Professor and has been the FAR since 2005.