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Panel discusses realities of student-athlete well-being

Experts explore approaches to confront mental health, other wellness issues

By Alaa Abdeldaiem

Enna Selmanovic was walking to the gym when she saw the news.

Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski — just 21 years old and the presumptive Cougars quarterback — had been found dead in his apartment from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. A suicide note was found.

Selmanovic, a junior and former swimmer at the University of Cincinnati, already had prepared her remarks for an NCAA Convention workshop on student health and well-being, but upon learning about the apparent suicide of yet another college athlete, she knew they would have to be revised.

This, she said, had to be at the forefront of the discussion.

“My best friend from UCF texted me pictures of the tweets,” Selmanovic, a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representative who has been involved with several mental health organizations and student-athlete wellness initiatives, told the audience Jan. 17. “And she said, ‘When is this going to end?’”

Selmanovic and nine other panelists who gathered for the workshop hope the answer is sooner rather than later.

To ensure that student protection does not end on the field, the NCAA has worked to identify strategies to address issues of health, safety and wellness in student-athletes, developing a series of best-practice guides through the NCAA Sport Science Institute to support athletics departments in their application.

The workshop aimed to address such issues and raise awareness of the resources available, helping participants develop an action plan to address the specific needs of their respective athletics departments.

The topic of mental health dominated the conversation. Selmanovic said she was aware of 35 college athletes who committed suicide from 2009 to 2015.

The issue has grown so concerning that the NCAA and the Sport Science Institute have spent the past four years devoting additional resources to address it. In 2014, the Association published “Mind, Body and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness.” It then published a best-practices guide in 2016 alongside web modules aimed at educating students, coaches and other athletics department representatives on how to create an environment that promotes help-seeking.

It’s that type of environment –– an open, destigmatized atmosphere — that panelists like L. Kenneth Chew Jr., the director of the Indiana State University Student Counseling Center, believe is key to taking the first step to address student-athlete mental health.

“Culture change is a huge part of this,” Chew said. “If you look at programs where mental health is accepted, people are more willing to disclose. When you have coaches and teammates on a team that are open to mental health, it reduces the stigma significantly. One of our teams got a new coach about two years ago, and he came in and was an advocate for mental health and talked to his team. Within two weeks, we had half the team in my office. Students are noticing that there’s a culture change and are more willing to talk about it.”

Education is also integral. Selmanovic believes equipping coaches, teammates and the student-athletes themselves with the proper resources and background is another key component to combating mental health problems on campus.

“If teammates are not equipped to notice when something is off, who is?” Selmanovic said after the session. “Students are not with their parents anymore. Their coaches see them day in and day out, and they’ll notice a performance dip. But if their teammates aren’t equipped and educated, and the athlete isn’t aware of the resources on campus, where to go and where to turn to, where are they going to go? It’s important to make them aware of mental health, and making mental health personable.”

Panelists also touched on issues surrounding student-athlete sleep patterns and return-to-learn practices, which strive to help student-athletes transition from injury back to the classroom by connecting them with campus disability offices and creating a channel of communication between coaches and teachers.

Policies and practical next steps surrounding sexual violence prevention also were emphasized. Mattie White, senior associate athletics director for academic services at Indiana, highlighted a new policy at the university that suspends athletes who have a history of sexual violence. The policy deems students “who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony involving sexual violence” ineligible for athletics-related financial aid, practice or competition.

The policy served as an example for others to implement at their own institutions.

“You have to have these conversations,” White said. “And they’re hard. When you’re recruiting someone, it’s not the first conversation you’ll have, asking them, ‘Have you done something really terrible and bad?’ But we want to make sure we are looking at their digital footprint, trying to figure out who these individuals are before we bring them to our campus.”

Policies aren’t the only way to play a part in sexual violence prevention. Grinnell football player Carson Dunn believes students, too, can contribute to the fight.

“We want you to step up and change something about your life to help this fight,” Dunn told the crowd. “Educate yourself. When that person makes that uncomfortable rape joke, you step in and you stop that. It’s small things that really help change.”

And change is ultimately what Selmanovic and other panelists hope the workshop will help bring. The guides and policies are in place.

Now, Selmanovic believes, schools must put them into practice.

“I can’t take another Tyler,” Selmanovic said. “If we can’t open our eyes to these realities, can’t all promote well-being in general, then nothing’s going to change. I just hope people realize finally how many issues there are in a college athlete’s well-being, step up to the plate and utilize this platform that we have to make a difference.”

Health and Wellness Panel

In addition to Selmanovic, the panel for the NCAA Convention workshop “Supporting Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being: Putting Policies into Action” included the following:

  • Cindy Miller Aron, director of group programs at Samaritan Mental Health.
  • L. Kenneth Chew Jr., director of the Indiana State University Student Counseling Center.
  • Jen Jacobsen, director of wellness and prevention at Grinnell.
  • David Landers, emeritus associate professor of psychology at Saint Michael’s.
  • J. Roxanne Prichard, associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at St. Thomas (Minnesota).
  • Frank Webbe, faculty athletics representative at Florida Tech.
  • Mattie White, senior associate athletics director for academic services at Indiana.
  • David Wyrick, associate professor of public health education at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
  • Carson Dunn, student-athlete at Grinnell.