COVID's Other Victims: Mental Health & Student Athletes

I’ve had a lot of conversations with young people lately, most of them NCAA student-athletes and, as I edit this to publish tomorrow, the news that three more sports have been dropped at Fresno State puts a lump in my throat because another group of student-athletes has to answer the question of what to do […]
Wendy Jones
October 18, 2020

I’ve had a lot of conversations with young people lately, most of them NCAA student-athletes and, as I edit this to publish tomorrow, the news that three more sports have been dropped at Fresno State puts a lump in my throat because another group of student-athletes has to answer the question of what to do next after spending years honing their craft. Beyond the students that have lost the ability to play their sport at the NCAA level, the rest of the athletes, have had their lives altered in intense ways since March 2020. I will be forever grateful for the family time that bolstered our spirits and deepened our connections with each other when COVID first hit, but I am increasingly worried about the toll that social isolation has had on a young, vital, otherwise healthy population on and around college campus’s.  These kids hold the keys to the future of our country and they are struggling, socially and emotionally, as they are left to grapple with new living and learning environments and separated from family and friends that would be their usual means of support.  They overthink every contact…should I go out and get food, can I go with this person, where can I sit, who can I sit with?   In most cases isolation is the answer…they can’t offer a ride to someone who needs one or go sit in a dorm room, spill their feelings and listen as their friend does the same.   In some cases for these athletes, certain people, who may offer little to no social/emotional support have been placed in “their bubble”, while friends that they have a history of support from are off limits. There is an air of policing and fear at a time when anxieties are already at an all time high. Will close contact lead them to another round of isolation, something that became more unbearable after they have experienced it before and every round of testing or contact tracing becomes more tense.  College campus’s in particular have the potential to be hubs of young, healthy energy, filled with optimism, but we are letting the air out of that bubble, until it is deflated and flat, with students left to wonder, which action to take, which choice matters, and staring back at blank faces over Zoom screens all day. 

Why are we asking them to live like this when they aren’t at risk of dying and living in communities with populations that are young and healthy like themselves?  Why are we inflicting more mental tension and less supportive connection in a time when they are meant to be growing and learning to thrive away from their families? College is a time we learn new ways of thinking based on a closeness with people who come from different cultures and homes than our own. It’s a time when all of the hard work that we have done pays off in the form of freedom, playing time, and new connections with the world.  But the current environment is placing another layer of stress and strain on an already taxed and evolving mental and emotional state.  It feels like we are protecting power structures, not people.  The rules are so arbitrary that a student could spend weeks without the support of his best friends and then contract COVID when he walks into a restaurant to order a taco. 

When I sent my first child off to college, and remembering my own college experience, I was very aware of the risks

Suicide = second leading cause of death among college students

Depression = second most common concern for college students seeking help on campus in 2019

Anxiety = most common concern for college students seeking help on campus in 2019

Alcohol Abuse - 1 out of 3 college students engaged in binge drinking in the last month. Approximately 1825 students die every year from alcohol and alcohol related accidents, not to mention the number of assaults and sexual assaults that are alcohol related. 

Prescription drug abuse - According to an Ohio State study, 67.5% of college students got high on prescription drugs

The risks of contracting COVID and being placed in a life threatening situation because of that pale in comparison to these statistics and yet the likelihood of this statistics getting even worse increases in the current environment.

When this all started back in March, we didn’t have  a lot of information, we didn’t know who was most vulnerable, and how the virus presented in different segments of the population. We had to distance ourselves and do what we needed to do to learn, gather information, and see how this terrible virus affected all of us.  Now we know that people under age 65 have very small risks of death. It’s not a matter of one person being more valuable than another, it’s the reality that a one size fits all policy, when also considering the mental health effects of isolation is not responsible. The mental health implications of these prevention guidelines for populations that are not statistically at high risk of death are far greater than them contracting COVID.  They are young and strong, and robbing them of the healthy healing and coping mechanisms of connection with people their age - even with a mask on -  is shortsighted.  There are effects that we as a society will be paying for for a long time. 

Here are some sentiments of college kids, away at school, that have come my way.  They are full of honest struggle, real growth, and lessons that they will carry with them as young adults that have come through this difficult time. They’re not all doom and gloom, but they give us a sense for how they are struggling and a signal for where we need to focus. Each one of these young adults made it clear to me that they weren’t complaining, just sharing their honest insight about how they felt.  These quotes come from students all over the country:

  • “Online learning takes away the informality of in-class discussions and the joy of getting to know classmates and professors. Reading people’s emotions through Zoom is really tough when there are just a whole bunch of blank faces staring back so I feel less inclined to participate or ask questions.” 

  • “I definitely feel more lonely and isolated when I’m in my dorm all day everyday without doing much. The lack of social gathering options makes me feel like I’m just going through the motions.” 

  • “As someone who has never had to deal with any mental health issues other than the occasional anxiety caused by everyday life, I would say Covid has been the most difficult thing I have had to deal with for my mental health. Over the summer I tried to look at quarantine as a positive. I gained muscle mass, did a lot of research on my sport, and let the time out of the water ignite an even stronger drive than I had before. These ways of looking at an overall negative time definitely helped me cope with the stress but there was one stressor that I could not escape from. This was the unknown of what would happen in the 2020-21 season. Until yesterday, the NCAA had not released anything on winter sports eligibility (in which swimming and diving are included). Luckily, the news arrived that we would be awarded another year of eligibility regardless of what happens this season. As one would see, this was probably the largest source of anxiety that was nagging me since the pandemic started. I would commonly have a hard time falling asleep, feeling like the best years of my life were being stripped away. We have already had an intrasquad meet and as fun as it was to compete again, I could not help but feel sadness as I realized the atmosphere on deck would be drastically less loud, engaging, and what I expected my final years of competition to be. This does not even take into account the depressing state of a once bustling and active campus atmosphere. I would also say I am not one of the athletes most affected. A close friend of mine had a bad bout of depression that resulted in a hospital visit. I do feel that Covid has taken its toll on me but with the extra year of NCAA eligibility I think I am over the worst of it.”

  • “If it’s something I’m excited about, it’s not going to happen.” 

  • “It feels like nothing I do matters, like there is no end in sight.” 

  • “The main thing for me has been the fact that COVID continues to force me to focus on the things I can control, let go of what I can’t, and live one day at a time. After months of hoping for good news, only to hear the opposite, my mindset has certainly adapted. My mindfulness practice really saved me here. Without it, I imagine my reactive mind and emotions would have been much more in control, in a disturbing way.”

While I understand and acknowledge that protections against COVID will need to continue, I am advocating that we put our fear in perspective and protect against the rise of the dangerous effects of the other risks created by the virus in the mental health arena for this promising population.  I started thinking about ways to make things better under the current circumstances:

  1. Create solid mindfulness and breath work training and routines within teams that are as mandatory as lifting weights and practice.

  2. Introduce sleep deprived student athletes to yoga nidra, the benefits of one 30 minute session are equal to four hours of deep sleep.

  3. If teams need to be split into smaller groups for training and socializing, allow teammates to offer their input to coaches to insure that each person has at least one solid trusted bond with the people in their bubble.  

  4. Coaches, encourage your captains and players to lead by showing your own vulnerability.  Tell them what you are struggling with, whether its health related fears, fears for the sport or season, or your athlete’s health. Let them know that you are in this together and not just a rule enforcer waiting for them to step out of line. The more open the communication, the safer your athletes will feel to open up and support each other. You want them to play free, not stressed about whether or not they have a virus that is not likely to be worse that the flu for them. 

  5. Coaches, reinforce the importance of recovery for them and lead by example. Most often the case with college athletes is that they have arrived where they are with a lot of hard work and effort. Unfortunately this also comes with a natural tendency to be very hard on themselves. With sleep, hydration, mindfulness…basically permission to slow down, their brains and bodies will learn to adapt to stress in a healthier way and their immune systems will get a much needed boost as well.

I’d love to hear your ideas. I am part of the caring collective, but at this point I’m more afraid for this population’s mental health, and the potential for other addictions that spike when we aren’t our strongest, than them dying of COVID. I have aging parents, know people who have lost loved ones, and still, I am deeply concerned for this generation that I have had the privilege to parent and form meaningful relationships with. The young adults I know have worked hard to get to where they are today, but don’t have the perspective of 40+ years .  Trauma is real, big T or little t, and isolation and losing out on what you have worked the hardest to achieve is traumatizing.  COVID has an incredibly high cost, but it’s not just a question of life and death, it’s about life and where we go from here, lead by compassion for all of the challenges we face. As we learn more about the virus, we need to balance all risk factors as we navigate the road ahead. No matter how good it feels to win a match or a championship, or secure a scholarship, the sports we love are a journey to self awareness that can last a lifetime. As unforeseen as these times we have experienced since March have been for all of us, the silver lining is the growth that is always waiting to be born out of life’s most complicated situations if we can learn to master the art of the simple in the midst of the complex.

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About the author:
Wendy Jones is a mother of four, lifelong athlete, writer, and optimism & resilience coach and speaker. Through 20 years of parenting and relationship struggles, she believes that vulnerability and our willingness to share our stories is a way to heal ourselves

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