Peer counseling program helps student-athletes (opinion)

We didn’t know Katie Meyer, the captain of the Stanford University football team who died earlier this year by suicide, her personal story or her struggles. But we know that the pressure of college athletics can sometimes be too much to bear. We’ve seen other college athletes falter when they seemed to have it all – athleticism, friends, smarts. Athletes who showed no signs of needing help.

Five years ago we sat across from each other and had a conversation about mental health and athletes after an incident with a student athlete and friend of Carolyn, one of the authors of this article and a recent graduate of St. Lawrence University. It was a conversation rarely heard in the sports world due to overwhelming stigma and a common misconception that athletes are tough and can overcome anything.

This conversation would trigger the creation of Supporting Health Initiatives Encompassing Lifelong Development (SHIELD), a program that would include many initiatives, including a peer support program that we developed in St. Lawrence. We’ve worked with administrators, coaches and student-athletes to integrate SHIELD into a program that provides mental health resources, helps break down stigma and creates leadership opportunities.

SHIELD’s goal was to create a safe space for student-athletes to discuss the unique pressures of being a college athlete. It’s a pressure that friends outside of athletics might not understand, or athletes might be ashamed to talk about with a coach, teammate, or trainer.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24/7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with local support, information and resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The student-athletes worked with health center counselors and university athletic administrators to create a peer support system. Over the years, SHIELD has grown exponentially. For example, in SHIELD’s third year, 29 student-athletes were trained in peer counseling. They each held office hours once a week so any athlete could stop by. Additional SHIELD programming included bi-weekly meetings that college students could attend, social media campaigns, and mindfulness-focused activities.

Although some athletes may have used their experiences in SHIELD as opportunities for independent study, the vast majority have volunteered to do their part to eliminate the stigma. Settled in athletics, SHIELD has no budget, and there are no costs other than time.

The mental health of athletes is in the spotlight because of the tragedies, but what if we changed the narrative? We did it in our university, and we did it without money but with the pure desire to improve ourselves.

Here are the steps that other institutions can take to create a mental health program for athletes.

  • Let the students lead. A female soccer, track and field and softball player, and a male hockey athlete led the charge in helping the athletic department create SHIELD. From male lacrosse players to female skiers, it became clear that this was not an issue specific to one sport, gender or division of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
  • Overcome stigma with numbers. Allowing students to create a peer support system fosters a sense of belonging and allows students to mentor each other as a means of emotional support. After being diagnosed with Lyme disease, Carolyn found her peers helped her persevere on and off the field. They weren’t afraid to open up and have real conversations about mental health.
  • Take advantage of social media. When the student-athletes created an Instagram account for SHIELD, we saw the power of a story. In SHIELD’s first year, more than 50 student-athletes, from nearly every team, took part in the social media campaign. Among the student-athletes who participated was a male hockey player who spoke about his personal struggles. Social media has increased awareness of student-athlete mental health on campus and allowed athletes to share their personal stories.

SHIELD isn’t perfect and hasn’t solved the mental health issue in college athletics. But it got the conversation started and created a space for athletes and coaches to talk about mental health the way they discuss physical injuries.

The new lineup is a challenge for already overwhelmed students, coaches and administrators. But we don’t need money, fancy technology or other resources. We just need athletes, coaches and administrators who are willing to speak up and volunteer their time.

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