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NCAA summit focuses on mental health and well-being of student-athletes of color

Recommendations to be released to help campuses better support student-athletes of color

During eight hours of Zoom calls Aug. 10-11, approximately 50 professionals from mental health, higher education and sports medicine organizations discussed mental health disparities facing student-athletes of color and reflected on ways to better support them.

The occasion: The NCAA’s Diverse Student-Athlete Mental Health and Well-Being Summit, a joint effort between the Association’s Sport Science Institute and the office of inclusion.

The reasons for holding the summit, which included current and former student-athletes, were layered.

To start, it’s part of the NCAA’s ongoing effort to amplify the need of supporting the mental health of student-athletes. In addition, the impact of COVID-19 has shed light on health disparities that exist in the United States, including in mental health. Student-athletes have faced significant mental health challenges during this pandemic, a survey in the spring revealed. Recent social injustices have added even more mental health challenges, especially for student-athletes of color.

The summit was an opportunity to discuss those issues and start working toward solutions to better support student-athletes of color.

“It was definitely a great and unparalleled experience,” said Jaila Tolbert, a former volleyball player at Virginia Tech and a member of the Board of Governors Student-Athlete Engagement Committee. “I got the opportunity to listen to some thought leaders and really take in a lot of information, some hard information about the diversity and well-being of Black student-athletes and how they’re faring during COVID and really uncertain times. On top of that, we’re fighting a whole different battle, a whole different virus with racial injustice. Obviously, there’s some actionable change that needs to happen.”

Tolbert was one of five student-athlete voices heard in the summit. The other four were Division I SAAC’s Alexis Garrett, Division II SAAC’s Angel Bautista-Ponce, Division III SAAC’s Devonte Amos, and Courtney Turner, a former student-athlete.

Darryl Conway, senior associate athletics director/chief health and welfare officer at Michigan, and co-chair of the Diverse Mental Health and Well-Being Summit’s steering committee.

“It was great to get their perspective because often times their voice is left out, especially because some of their institutions don’t have the resources that some of the larger athletic departments have,” said Stephany Coakley, senior associate athletics director/mental health at Temple, who served as the co-chair of the summit’s steering committee. “It's important to put services in place that are going to limit the barriers to care that student-athletes from diverse populations experience. This can be achieved by having staff who are culturally competent, having staff of color and other diverse backgrounds providing mental health care, creating resources that speak to their lived experience as opposed to somebody else’s lived experience. This work is vital. I’m glad we’ve taken the time to do it.  I look forward to publishing our results and continuing to develop what we started.”

In the coming weeks, proposed action items from the summit will be released. They will be in the form of recommendations and foundational statements to assist NCAA schools and conferences in addressing the topic through education, research and policy development.

“I think the major overarching theme from the summit, which wasn’t a surprise, was that mental health care in this country is lacking but especially lacking for people of color,” said Darryl Conway, senior associate athletics director/chief health and welfare officer at Michigan, who served as co-chair of the summit’s steering committee. “The stigmas associated with people of color seeking mental health care are there, and those are things that need to be overcome, along with the lack of providers of color, which was a huge theme. How can we improve that? How can we get more providers of color? That was something that that was very important and is a huge takeaway.”

Underrepresentation of people of color in professions including mental health care, athletic training, medicine and athletics, in general, was among the barriers to mental health care the summit attendees discussed in detail.

The summit also focused on a few other main topics: resources and support for athletes and staff, clinical training and care, institutional systems and research. Within these topics were several themes. They included anti-racism athlete training and education, approaches to increase help-seeking behaviors and reduce stigma in mental health, support for identity development beyond sports, and increased preventative screening.

“The first overwhelming sentiment from the summit is women and men who are trusted veteran professionals in their fields, nationwide, all shared the same professional assessments: This a generation that needs more, not less, assistance in the holistic education provided by intercollegiate athletics,” said Britton Katz, interim vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students at the University of South Carolina Upstate. “I’m grateful to the NCAA for setting up such a task force that allowed us to propose ideas.”

One of those ideas was to focus on a student-athlete’s entire support system, such as coaches, athletic trainers, academic advisors and legal guardians, among others. Conway emphasized the importance of thinking of mental health and well-being as a group endeavor, not an individual journey.

“So much of this and so much of health care is an interdisciplinary approach, and there’s no one person that can do it all. And there shouldn’t be one person that can do it all because it needs to be a team effort. So the ability to have everybody involved in it and everybody lending a hand is important because everybody’s coming at it from different angles and different experiences,” Conway said.

“A coach is going to have a way different experience with some things than an athletic trainer is, than a dietitian is, than a strength coach is, than a mental health provider is. Even a mental health provider who’s embedded in athletics is going to view things differently than a mental health provider that works at a campus health system or works in private practice. A physician is going to view things differently than a psychologist. And a sport psychologist is going to view things differently than a social worker or a clinical psychologist. Those are all, for me, the reasons that an interdisciplinary approach is what is needed and what must happen.”

Stephany Coakley, senior associate athletics director/mental health at Temple, and co-chair of the summit’s steering committee

Coakley said it’s the exact approach being used at Temple and needs to be more widely used across the NCAA.

“We have a multi-disciplinary approach because, as members of this athletics department, our time with each student-athlete is very limited. We have very limited information with which to make informed decisions, but when we collaborate, we gather more information because the athletic trainer is providing information, the academic advisor is providing information, the coach is providing information, and now we have the ability to help the student-athlete in the totality of their experience,” she said. “I found that approach extremely helpful here because you can miss the boat just working in your individual lane, particularly with mental health care. We don’t want to miss the boat because it will take a longer time to achieve wellness. The longer somebody is in distress, it’s uncomfortable for them. The ability to collaborate with all of the stakeholders and develop a comprehensive care plan enables the student-athlete to move in the direction of thriving and resilient sooner rather than later.”

Until the summit, Kean men’s basketball head coach Adam Hutchinson never thought about it this way. Admittedly, he said he also never considered how athletics participation could be a source of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. It’s why he ended the summit with a personal takeaway he knows he’s not alone in: Awareness is key.

“There were people on that call who had clearly been engaged in these issues for longer than I have,” he said. “What I took from my participation was an awareness of, ‘I have a blind spot here. I have something that is an issue, and I need to be engaging and better prepared to contribute.’”