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Keep Expanding Mental Health and Wellness Initiatives in College Athletics (By: Nicolo Porto)

The link between mental health and athletes has been well-documented for years. However, in 2020, the lack of mental health resources and programming continues to be an issue for athletes from youth through the professional ranks. In 2014 the NCAA released Mind, Body, and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness. This was a good first step in addressing mental health needs for student-athletes.

In the summer of 2017, the Big East hosted its first ever Student-Athlete Mental Health Summit. It included a wide range of groups, including athletic administrators, campus counselors, athletic trainers, faculty athletic administrators, NCAA representatives, and industry mental health experts (Big East, 2017). Its purpose was to help college and universities create a campus environment that fosters and supports student-athlete mental health (Big. East, 2017). The Big East held subsequent summits in 2018 and 2019. The Atlantic Coast Conference had their inaugural mental health summit in 2019.

The Big Ten Conference recently announced the formation of the Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet. Big Ten commissioner, Kevin Warren, said a core pillar of his vision was to “educate, embrace, engage, and empower our more than 9500 student-athletes.” (Kevin Ward, 2020). The cabinet consists of professionals from all member schools, as well as John’s Hopkins University and the University of Notre Dame.

College athletics, as a whole, needs to embrace mental wellness the same way the Big Ten has. While summits are a step in the right direction and a catalyst for further mental health supports, we have to do better. The summits the Big East and ACC conducted were for a few days during the summer. Mental wellness is active and ever-changing. Mental wellness, for thousands of athletes, cannot be solved by a summit for a few days each year. The concept of the Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet is phenomenal. This is a committee of people that will be in constant communication and collaboration. With great minds on the same page, the Big Ten has a chance to revolutionize mental health services for student-athletes and all those involved in college athletics. There should be no competition when it comes to the health and wellness of our athletes. I hope the Big Ten’s initiative is the spark needed for other conferences, from Division I athletics all the way down the ladder, to implement similar programs and supports.

As social workers, we can get involved at the micro and macro levels. At the micro level, this involves training clinicians to become proficient in working with athletes’ specific needs. A program like the Sports Social Work Certificate Program through ASWIS is one such way to train social workers. It means building relationships with community agencies and private practices in the areas that we work so we can connect athletes with people that can effectively help them. At the macro level, this means getting involved at the policy level and advocating for more funds for mental health. It can mean being on the planning committee for these conferences and summits.

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