NEW YORK—Featuring lectures from two national authorities on mental health and perspective from several Columbia coaches and student-athletes, Columbia University and Columbia Athletics hosted an NCAA Forum for Student-Athlete Mental Health on Wednesday evening at the University’s Faculty House.

 

Organized by the NCAA Sport Science Institute and the Columbia University School of Psychiatry, the forum was designed to address core issues of mental health in student-athletes with a target audience of high school and college coaches, parents, administrators, student-athletes and other stakeholders of sport.

 

NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline, MD and Columbia University Psychiatrist Jeff Lieberman, MD both gave lectures on the challenges and issues of mental health in youth and college sports. Two forums were also held featuring both coaches and student-athletes where the participants were given a question to discuss.

 

Hainline, the NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer and Clinical Professor of Neurology at the Indiana University of School Medicine and New York University School of Medicine, spoke about the NCAA’s strategic priorities and the best practices to combat mental health issues nationwide. He discussed advances in creating an atmosphere of awareness at both the high school and college levels as positive changes.

 

Hairline, who also oversees the sports science institute, says it’s always important for student-athletes to have mind and body working together and discussed nine strategic priorities with mental health being a main priority. He cited that coaches are the single most important influence on student-athletes and that 99 percent of student-athletes mentioned their coach’s influence as being the most important factor in regards to mental health. In the recruiting process and when student-athletes choose a college, the most important factor for student-athletes is feeling like they belong and that it will have a negative impact if the student-athlete does not have a sense of belonging on a team or at a school. He also mentioned the fact that 70 percent of student-athletes believe that their coaches care about mental health.

 

Lieberman spoke about the various reasons student-athletes experience mental illness and the fact that many times illnesses go untreated due to fear and social stigma. He provided various examples and said that mental illness is among the most diagnosable among all illnesses as treatments are readily available. It is the breakdown of attitudes in society that is needed in order to provide athletes assistance.

 

Phil Satow began the evening with the keynote address and shared his motivation for creating the JED Foundation.

 

Jenn Carter, Counseling and Sport Psychologist at Ohio State University, moderated a coaches’ panel discussion that included insight from Columbia Head Men’s Soccer Coach Kevin Anderson, Columbia Track and Field Assistant Coach Maraya Slatter, Fair Lawn Boys Track and Field Coach Eric Miller and Columbia Team Physician Dr. William Levine.

 

Anderson was posed with the question: What are ways coaches can create an environment that promotes help-seeking and mental health?

 

Anderson spoke about ownership and responsibility and his vision for every soccer player that he works with: what is our relationship in 20 years?

 

“Our program is not about us as coaches, it’s about our players,” Anderson said. “We create the environment that promotes help-seeking and mental health by talking about who I am, what’s important to me, why is it that we are interested in someone coming to our university and playing for us.”

 

He went on say that he has initiated a players’ only council in which the players decide what they want to discuss with the coaching staff. The group is comprised of a student-athlete from each class level and promotes peer development. As first-year student-athletes arrive, they always have a voice.

 

“We have also been able to surround our team with some remarkable people,” Anderson said. “The importance of relationships between not only coaches and athletes, but support staff as well, helps to create the atmosphere. It is common to see our nutritionist, our sports psychologist, our enrichment services staff around our team. That group is the single-best addition to our sport and helps to create our team’s circle of trust. We’ve created a culture of well-being and there is familiarity with our student-athletes.”

 

Slatter was posed with the question: How can coaches take care of their own mental health?

 

Slatter admitted that as a coach, it can be can be very stressful with feelings of high anxiety at times.

 

“As coaches, we need to be in a positive mental state when we coach and lead our student-athletes,” Slatter said. “If we are not in a good mind-state, it can be very difficult. You want to help guide your athletes to be successful not only on the track but in life as well. You have to make time for yourself and being in the right mental state will help guide you to become a better coach. Our mental state has an impact on our athletes. It’s our job to make sure they’re in the right mind-state.”

 

She said it is also important to have a variety of individuals with resources to call upon.

 

“I have many resources and in different situations, I can reach out to those people and they’re definitely going to help me,” Slatter said. “As a coach, you have several roles and having those resources, not just within the track and field world, but with all things in life can be a big help. I have great mentors in the coaching world that I call on to be a resource and mentor. I also have a tremendous resource in (Columbia sports psychologist) Brent Walker to go to. Sometimes athletes need someone outside of sports. It’s about having resources, people to talk to and to help guide you through situations.”

 

Dr. Levine was posed with the question: What are the various ways sports medicine staffers support coaches in this effort and addressed the most difficult part of supporting a student-athlete with a mental health disorder?

 

“The key is to have a support team of doctors,” Levine said. “We have a dream team of specialists here at Columbia. Our goal is to provide all the care necessary for our student-athletes. Communication has been key. We’ve strived to have our coaches, student-athletes and administrators have access to us 24-7. That’s the way it has always been, that’s what I perceive to be the most important element. I can’t diagnose mental health problems if the athlete does not share it with us. Starting to break down those barriers is what we have to do.”

 

“From our perspective it is to communicate early and often,” he said. “Whoever we need to get involved, we get involved. There is a tremendous amount of support for student-athletes here at Columbia. Emotional and spiritual well-being is critical to each student-athlete’s development. Our athletic trainers also are with the student-athletes every day. We have a great team here at Columbia.”

 

The student-athlete forum was moderated by Yvette Rooks, MD, MFHS SMAC and representative of the National Federation of High School Sports. The forum included perspective from current University of Cincinnati student-athlete Enna Selmanovic, the NCAA Division I SAAC representative for the American Athletic Conference, former Indiana student-athlete and diver Cassidy Kahn and Columbia football player/long snapper Patrick Eby.

 

Eby was tasked with addressing the question: In a sport like football, how do you overcome the perceived stigma of asking for help?

 

“The No. 1 reason that mental health is so stigmatized, particularly in football is the notion of mental toughness,” Eby said. “You have to be in shape, but you also have to withstand a whole bunch of mental adversity. It’s taught at such a young age. I remember the first time I ever got hit in a football game, I wanted to quit, but that’s when I first learned the lesson that you need to be mentally tough to play football. I think our athletes need to be educated on mental health issues. If they’re having problems, a lot of athletes regard that as being ‘mentally weak’. It is critical to tell someone if you are struggling. Student-athletes need to tell what is wrong and going to a trainer is an excellent resource. The athletic trainers understand the seriousness of mental health disorders. Not only is on the onus on the student-athletes to speak up, but coaches should also be in on the process.”

 

“When an athlete experiences mental issues, they do not want to go for help. The problem with that is that many student-athletes do not put their mental health first because it’s not as talked about actively. Your mental health is the most important thing.”

 

“The panel was an excellent opportunity to bring together experts on the topic of mental health in intercollegiate athletics,” Columbia Associate Athletics Director for Championship Performance Brent Walker said. “Our hope is that tonight's panel is the first of many NCAA programs designed to discuss the challenges of addressing mental health issues across all levels of sport.”