Common Mental Health Issues in College Student Athletes

The college years should be the happiest time of a young person’s life but the number of students experiencing mental health problems is rising. Student athletes are even more susceptible to emotional struggles due to their high-pressure lifestyle.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) conducted a student athlete well-being study in 2021. It found that mental health problems are highest among student athletes in demographics that are generally more predisposed to psychological issues – women, student athletes of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and those from lower income families experiencing financial hardship. The study also revealed elevated rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression among college student athletes generally. Below is a breakdown these behavioral health concerns, and what can be done to mitigate and manage them for greater emotional health and wellness.

6 Mental Health Concerns Commonly Experienced by University Athletes and Where to Get Support

1. Mental Exhaustion

The challenges of trying to juggle college assignments and sporting commitments can really take an emotional toll. The study found that 38% of female and 22% of male student athletes feel mentally exhausted most days or constantly. It is probably no coincidence that 25% of men and 47% of women reported feeling overwhelmed by everything going on in their lives, and 19% of men and 28% of women said they are experiencing sleeping difficulties.

2. Anxiety

Female student athletes in particular are suffering from anxiety – almost a third of those surveyed by the NCAA (29%) reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety all the time or almost every day, compared with 12% of male student athletes. Ongoing feelings of worry, tension and panic can have a devastating impact on students’ self-confidence, social interactions, ability to complete daily tasks, and academic and sporting performance.

3. Depression

The demands faced by student athletes on top of the pressures of being a regular student, can lead to depression. In the NCAA study, 6% of male college athletes and 9% of female college athletes reported feeling so depressed that they found it difficult to function. Some students believe there is a stigma associated with depression so try to ignore or cover up the problem. However, left untreated, depression can adversely affect studying, sleeping and eating habits, training and matches, and relationships with friends, family and teammates. In extreme cases, it can lead to suicidal thoughts or even suicide. Find out more about suicide risk factors and warning signs in our article: The Uncomfortable Trend of Suicide in the US.

Other mental health issues faced by college student athletes include stress, substance abuse and eating disorders:

4. Stress

Research identifying stress unique to college athletes has found that 85% of female and 95% of male student athletes have higher stress levels compared to 52% of non-athlete students. They report more stress than non-athletes in the following areas: romantic relationships, daily responsibilities, sleep and extracurricular activities. This is likely to be due to the reduced time they are able to dedicate to these areas of their life. The research concluded that college student athletes suffering from stress are more likely to have unhealthy habits and experience psychological issues.

5. Substance Abuse

Some student athletes use unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol and illicit drugs, to manage the demands of their busy lifestyle. The Journal of Intercollegiate Sport found that anxiety related to athletic performance was a ‘significant predictor’ of substance abuse, and those over the age of 21, especially males, are more likely to engage in risky behavior. Additionally, student athletes are susceptible to injuries and, rather than jeopardize their place on the team, they may become reliant on prescription pain medication to keep playing.

6. Eating Disorders 

The Sport Journal has reported that up to 84% of college student athletes engage in disordered eating and weight control strategies – such as binge eating, self-induced vomiting, strict dieting, weight loss pills, fasting and skipping meals. These behaviors can lead to the development of an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and negatively affect physical and mental health, as well as sporting and academic performance. Some college athletes struggling with disordered eating also engage in compulsive exercise to compensate for their high calorie intake which can put them at higher risk of physical injury and exhaustion.

On-Campus Mental Health Support for College Student Athletes

Under the NCAA constitution, each affiliated college should support the physical and mental health of student athletes by providing access to appropriate care and resources. However, the NCAA student athlete well-being study found that only 48% of female student athletes and 46% of male student athletes would feel comfortable seeking support from an on-campus mental health provider.

Online Therapy for College Student Athletes

If you, or a loved one, are a college student athlete experiencing mental health issues, do not struggle in silence – we can help. 

At Kindbridge, we are experts at treating the common mental health issues that affect young athletes. Our high-quality online therapy is accessible from wherever you are studying or training, at times that suit you. Your dedicated counsellor will design a personalized recovery plan to fit around your busy schedule. 

Take the first step today and get in touch. Call +1 (877) 426-4258 or email [email protected] to book an initial appointment.