The Connection Between COVID-19 and Student Athlete Mental Health

Back in March 2020, more than 460,000 NCAA student athletes’ worlds came crashing down and life as they knew it ceased to exist. When the Coronavirus finally hit the United States, no one could have imagined the devastating impact it would have on collegiate sports. After the NBA suspended games upon finding that a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID, it was only a matter of time before the NCAA took similar action. Within days, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors announced the cancellation of remaining 2020 Winter and Spring Championships. This was to be expected after all professional leagues suspended their seasons of play. Nevertheless, no amount of expectation or preparation could have prepared student-athletes for the mental and psychological challenges that were to ensue.

In May 2020, the NCAA conducted a Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well Being Survey with participation from 37,658 student-athletes, representing all conferences and sports across the three divisions. The mental health results, although predictable, were astonishing. A majority of student-athletes surveyed reported experiencing high rates of mental distress since the outset of the pandemic. Over a third reported experiencing sleep difficulties, more than a quarter reported feeling sadness and a sense of loss, and 1 in 12 reported feeling so depressed it has been difficult to function, “constantly” or “most every day.” Additionally, college seniors reported a sense of loss at 1.5 times the rate of underclassmen. In most instances, the rates of mental health concerns experienced within that month were 150% to 250% higher than historically reported by NCAA student-athletes in the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment.

Rewind to pre-COVID. The NCAA, through its Sports Science Institute, offers Mental Health Best Practices, which are designed to provide athletics and sports medicine departments – regardless of size and resources – with recommendations for supporting and promoting student-athlete mental health. While these Best Practices are not mandatory, they are the closest thing athletic departments have to an industry standard in this area, especially from a legal standpoint. If an athletic department is not at least in compliance with these recommendations, there is the distinct possibility of legal liability. The key is that failure to abide by best practices can be evidence that an institution has violated its duty of care and is negligent. These Best Practices include an athletic department having:

  1. Clinical Licensure of Practitioners Providing Mental Health Care;
  2. Procedures for Identification and Referral of Student-Athletes to Qualified Practitioners
  3. Pre-Participation Mental Health Screening; and
  4. Health-Promoting Environments that Support Mental Well-Being and Resilience
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Fast forward to the present, Coronavirus is still running rampant through the US and around college campuses. Some NCAA conferences have cancelled seasons, others haven’t, and others have even recanted on cancelling and are now going forward with a “modified” conference schedule. Yet the NCAA Mental Health Best Practices have not been updated to reflect the current situation. That’s right. Even though it facilitated a mental health survey in May uncovering a major spike in student-athlete mental health concerns, the NCAA has not changed what it considers Best Practices. In reality, the NCAA should alter the first Best Practice to advise athletic departments to have a Clinical Licensure of Sports Psychologist Practitioners on staff with the department. But now, due to the pandemic, the odds of that happening are slim. Athletic departments across the country are facing budget cuts and some have even gone as far as department-wide furloughs. So, even if athletic departments did have a sports psychologist on staff pre-COVID, these budget cuts and furloughs would likely hit them first because they are not technically essential to the function of a department. However, based on the results of the NCAA survey, a relatively small investment now (in a sports psychologist) is critical to the future wellbeing of student athletes.

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