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George Washington athletics, health professionals unite to support student-athlete mental wellness

On the heels of the seminal release of the interassociation “Mental Health Best Practices,” more than 70 coaches, administrators and campus health professionals from George Washington University gathered in Washington, D.C., for a first-of-its-kind discussion to promote the mental health and well-being of college athletes.

The workshop was developed in collaboration with the NCAA Sport Science Institute, George Washington athletics, George Washington mental health services and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro Institute To Promote Athlete Health and Wellness. It brought together campus stakeholders in a program designed to educate participants about student-athlete mental health and well-being, to explore communications strategies for coaches to employ when addressing a student-athlete’s mental health concern, to promote cross-campus partnership and ultimately to help inform future SSI efforts to educate coaches at NCAA member schools on mental health issues.

The two-part workshop included a morning session dedicated to the four interassociation best practices and an afternoon session that offered tools for head and assistant coaches to support a culture of resilience and care seeking within their athletics department and on their teams.

David Wyrick and Ashley Frazier, from the Institute To Promote Athlete Health and Wellness, kicked off the day by engaging participants in a conversation that framed the promotion of health and well-being in the context of a culture and communication.  As Wyrick pointed out, understanding mental health and wellness, especially for student-athletes, is an evolving subject, and building a culture that normalizes seeking help begins with communication.

Building on Wyrick and Frazier’s discussion, Amber Cargill, assistant director of mental health services at George Washington, discussed the continuum of mental health, with resilience and thriving on one end of the continuum and mental health disorders on the other end. She shared information on depression, anxiety and eating disorders and how to recognize when a student-athlete may be facing a mental health concern.

“For someone who is in mental distress, usually athletics is the last thing to go because they put so much energy and investment into that identity and that part of their lives,” Cargill said. “So you may be hearing or seeing things from other parts of their lives. That may be your signal. Their sleep and appetite may be impacted, or their routine may be disrupted. They might miss a couple of classes or see a drop in academic performance.”

The remainder of the morning included presentations on the four best practices by Mary Wilfert, associate director of the NCAA Sport Science Institute, and Chris Hennelly, assistant athletics director of George Washington sports medicine and training.

“To promote health is to enhance performance,” Wilfert said. “One of the things ‘Mental Health Best Practices’ does is to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to student-athlete mental health and wellness.”

After a short break, George Washington head and assistant coaches stayed in the room for the afternoon session, which focused on supporting them in the implementation of the fourth best practice, health-promoting environments that support mental well-being and resilience. Facilitated by Wyrick and Frazier, this interactive session used the Coaches Assist framework to provide coaches with strategies to become facilitators of student-athlete well-being. Building upon the principles of health coaching, prevention science and motivational interviewing, coaches were introduced to a style of interacting that allows student-athletes to consider taking steps toward better health.

In the final segments of the workshop, coaches created an action plan to implement the strategies they learned with their teams. They also took time to provide ideas and feedback on future educational efforts in this area.

“I’m so thankful to the GW administrative staff, UNCG, and the NCAA for having the insight to put on this opportunity,” George Washington women’s gymnastics coach Margie Foster-Cunningham said. “This is a problem in our society, and we, as coaches, need to make time for this. We should all make time for this.”