– Ellie Buckheit
“We can start with treating athletes as people first. We’re referred to as student-athletes, but at the core of that, we’re people.” Stated Gwen Schemm, sports mental health advocate and a former soccer player at Frostburg.
Frostburg State University’s student body holds 586 athletes on campus. Whom all may be or have been going through mental health struggles at some point in their college career. Whether its feelings of overwhelmingness, anxiety, stress, burnout or much more. In a recent study by the Athletes for Hope Organization, it stated that “up to 35% of athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety” (Athletes for Hope). This is all a factor from the lifestyles they must go through as college athletes. This does not only effect Frostburg State University athletics, but this also effects Universities all over the country and we must do something to fix this prevailing problem.
This past year, news spread all over the United States that a Stanford University soccer player, who may seem to have the “picture perfect” lifestyle, ended her life in her dorm room on March 4, 2022. Within less than a month later, news broke loose on the death of a Binghamton’s Men’s Lacrosse player named Robert Martin, who also took his own life.
Sarah Schulze, Brittany Stevens, Sean P. Bonner, Jr, James Peek, John Chambers, Katie Meyer, Morgan Rodgers, Bryce Gowdy, Zoe Rogers, Tyler Hilinski, Augustus “Gus” Lee, Robert Martin, Sean Locke, Austin Weirich, Madison Holleran, Evan Hansen. Those are just a few of the names of college athletes who have committed suicide. All these athletes are Division I players, who were suffering in silence and unfortunately no one knew till it was too late. This doesn’t count for other student athletes that never reached publicity over their deaths. This doesn’t count for JUCO, NAIA, DIII, and DII athletes who’ve taken their lives because of the silent struggles they went through. This doesn’t count for all the athletes alive today who are silently struggling over their everyday living situations.
But why is it that there has become so much publicity recently over suicides of college athletes? Could it be the transition effects from COVID? The year of 2020 was cut short for many athletes due to the COVID pandemic, then a year later athletes started going back to their normal lives with restrictions. Less games, less practices, more days off. Then fast forward to 2022, college athletes are back to their lifestyles before COVID. The same number of games, practices and free time taken away. This could possibly contribute to the deaths of these college athletes.
The transition from once being a player from a club or travel team to being a part of a college team can be a quite big transition for a lot of athletes. What was then a sport that relieved their stress and helped them feel better about themselves, is now a part of their stress and anxiety. “Especially as a freshman, your first semester is going to be the hardest. You’re going to feel the most anxiety that you’ve ever felt because this transition is so new. You’re getting used to being around so many new people, you’re far from home, and you are going to need to balance out a whole new lifestyle that you have never lived before.” Stated Austin Swallow, a former athlete at FSU who now attends Radford University.
Most college athletes go through some form of mental struggle throughout their college career. A current athlete at Frostburg who asked to stay anonymous for this interview stated, “I go through emotions of being tired, and unmotivated… Definitely being a student athlete, it can be stressful and tiring on my body and on my mental health.” Other athletes during my interview with them stated emotions of anger, anxiety, fear, and stress. But a lot have also stated that they have felt a sense of relief, happiness, and excitement when it comes to being a part of an athletic team here at FSU.
Many athletes have discussed that a part of the problem is the coaching. Athletes don’t know who to go to, or if it will affect the way the coaches think of them. An athlete who attends Frostburg and asked to stay anonymous, stated, “Some coaches look at mental health as being an excuse and being weak.” She further went on and stated, “Coaches should be more understanding and more aware of athletes who are struggling mentally. Coaches should be sure to make time out of their day to help and aid their players to feel better and do better. Being a coach is also being a parent to their players. Coaches should allow their players to speak about their concerns before punishment is assigned.” Another athlete who asked to remain anonymous mentioned something similar, “There is some sort of lack of action towards taking care of athletes mental health, like really checking in on everybody and truly caring about us as human beings.”
Gwen Schemm recently advocated about the struggles she has went through during her college career. She is now a part of the Hidden Opponent Organization in hopes to spread awareness regarding student athlete mental health struggles. Regarding her experiences at FSU she stated, “My freshman year of college, I really struggled with the transition to the college game. I wasn’t playing like myself and really struggled to fit into the system FSU played. I had lost myself as a player as I was trying to become something I was not. My freshman year was the darkest place I had ever been.” She further went on and stated, “I was such a perfectionist that even the thought of making a mistake, whether that meant getting a question wrong on an exam or a bad pass on the field, I would spiral.” She further stated how much therapy has helped her. She went to therapy in the CAPs center and, stated that she had amazing coaches and athletic trainers that helped her conquer her mental health struggles.
Austin Swallow has recently posted on her social media the struggles she went through at Frostburg. After speaking with her, she stated, “My experience as an athlete at Frostburg definitely was a roller coaster of emotions, I had a really negative experience. My mental health was the worst it had ever been. I felt like even though I was reaching out for help, and trying to seek help, that I just felt like no one really understood me and that no one was really there for me. It was very isolating, so I gave up athletics for a few months. Then I got the opportunity to join Track & Field at Frostburg, and it changed my life for the better. But even still being an athlete at Frostburg before I transferred, I still wasn’t exactly happy with athletics. I still felt like it was a struggle to find a balance between school and athletics. At my current University, I am the happiest I’ve ever been. My mental health is so strong.”Austin Swallow has recently posted on her social media the struggles she went through at Frostburg. After speaking with her, she stated, “My experience as an athlete at Frostburg definitely was a roller coaster of emotions, I had a really negative experience. My mental health was the worst it had ever been. I felt like even though I was reaching out for help, and trying to seek help, that I just felt like no one really understood me and that no one was really there for me. It was very isolating, so I gave up athletics for a few months. Then I got the opportunity to join Track & Field at Frostburg, and it changed my life for the better. But even still being an athlete at Frostburg before I transferred, I still wasn’t exactly happy with athletics. I still felt like it was a struggle to find a balance between school and athletics. At my current University, I am the happiest I’ve ever been. My mental health is so strong.”
A former multi-sport athlete who is now a Primary Care Physician at Conemaugh Health System, in Johnstown, PA. Her name is Dr. Jessica Masser, and she played three different sports at FSU while it was a DIII school. Regarding athletes who are currently struggling with mental health, she stated, “It’s important to talk to someone. It’s important to admit that you were having issues. Mental health is like anything else. You wouldn’t ignore a torn muscle; you wouldn’t ignore chest pain. It’s important to realize that this is a crucial part of who you are, and it needs to be properly taken care of like anything else medically. So, I think it’s finding somebody that you feel comfortable discussing it with and getting the help you need to improve.” Regarding what colleges can do to help athletes who are struggling, she stated, “The first thing I think is important is letting them know there’s a safe space they can discuss their issues with. Give them an outlet of individuals that they can know they can talk to without fear of being made fun of or singled out.”
The Frostburg Student Athlete Advisory Committee is a group of Athletes that usually hold about one to two athletes per team at FSU. This group of athletes help to organize many events to help keep other athletes involved on campus.
They currently have a mental health committee in which they organize events to talk about mental health. After speaking to one of the SAAC members, she stated “We have had professionals do virtual meetings about signs, symptoms, treatment, and strategies to help athletes. We send out emails and pan flits with information.” She also stated that the SAAC Committee “does positive attributes and feedback forums for anybody struggling. Also, to just spread awareness in hopes to help promote less stigma around the topic.” She further stated that they are currently in the process of implementing mental health days for all sports at Frostburg for at least once per semester.
Dr. Susan Mandell, the director of CAPs, which is a Counseling and Psychological Service that is available for students here at Frostburg. Many athletes have stated that they didn’t even know this resource was available on campus. She stated, “That all really comes down to the Athletic Department sharing about this resource.” During COVID, Dr. Susan Mandell stated that she started meeting with the Assistant Athletic Director for Frostburg athletics regarding this topic and spreading awareness. Overtime, she said it never went anything farther than that.
For any counselors or psychologists who specialize in sports, she stated, “There is no one on staff here that work specifically in Sports Psychology, but all the counselors on site, social workers, and psychologists all have the skills that are applicable to working with athletes.” She further stated regarding athletes who are afraid to get help, that CAPs hold a lot of self-help resources that are available on their website.
Mr. Troy Dell, the Athletic Director had a few things to say regarding this topic. He stated that the coaches at FSU go through training and that typically if a student comes to a coach regarding mental health struggles, they will get the athletic trainers involved and then they will get CAPs involved. Dr. Susan Mandell, the director of CAPs stated, “As far as communication between the Athletic Department and CAPs, I would say that there is some. Several coaches reached out for support for their teams during the COVID pandemic…we also get referrals from coaches at times for students in need of support.”
Regarding bringing in a sports psychologist into the program. He stated, “where does that fit in with more coaches, where does that fit in with increasing meal per diems… it all becomes this balancing act…if I can get one person… is that really enough for me to have an impact?” He further stated there is a section in the handbook for the athletics regarding mental health. It states that “Each year you complete a mental health screening prior to participation in athletic activity”. Many of the athletes at FSU, mentioned that they do not remember taking this mental health assessment. But after speaking to Dr. Michael Monahan who is the Faculty Athletic Representative for FSU, he reassured that all athletes do take this mental health screening over the summer with many other assessments that the athletes must take.
The mental health screening is available for student athletes to take over the summer. It is survey-based questions revolving around the athletes overall mental health. It asks questions on a scale from 0-3, zero being not at all and three being nearly every day. Statements were like “Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless,” “sleeping too much,” “feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge.” The students must rate those statements from 0-3. After completing the assessment, we must get approved to play. However, over the summer, athletes must complete several surveys and assessments before move-in. This can become a hassle for many athletes over their busy summers and instead of reading thoroughly through these assessments, athletes most likely just try to get it done so that they don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Mr. Emmett Gill, a member of The Drake Group which is an organization that works to educate the United States’ Congress, and decision makers about issues concerning college athletes. Mr. Emmett Gill is the Chief Visionary Officer for Athletes and Advocates for Social Justices in Sports and is also the founder of AthleteTalk, which is a wellness app for athletes. Mr. Emmett Gill provided clinical services for college athletes at the University of Texas at Austin and was a professional sports crisis and wellness program manager for mental health for the NFL, NBA, and NFL Lifeline.
After addressing concerns regarding the mental health screening, Mr. Emmett Gill stated the following, “Athletes get these mental health screening assessment tools, and they are not really emphasized, athletes don’t really take them seriously…maybe we have to have a setting where we talk about this tool, and then we administer this tool then maybe do some things in between like some prep leading up to it where coaches talk about mental health. To get the athletes ready.”
Then after addressing concerns about not having anyone available on campus who specialize in sports psychology, Mr. Emmett Gill stated, “DII athletic directors don’t have the budget that other schools may have. So, in that sense, I understand it. But at the same time, if you get one and one gets rolling, and they are popular…then there are different ways to fund it, like donors, NIL collectors, they can fund it. There are a lot of different ways.” He further went on and stated, “We lost 5 college athletes to suicide in the past two months, there are donors out there that will pay for it. There are companies out there that will pay for it. So, there is a way to pay for it.”
When it comes to what coaches at FSU can do to let their players know who to talk to, Mr. Emmett Gill stated, “It depends on the coach…I think that coaches, or athletic directors, or the athletes need to be able to say, that coach is someone we can go talk to…If coaches can assess and really decide whether or not they are a good person to talk to, and if not, who’s next. Is it the trainer, or assistant coach? If they’re not, then the counseling center.” He further stated, “Most athletes have a trusted individual to help them get to where they are. Go talk to them. If it’s not your parents, then it’s your old coach, if it’s not your old coach then it’s your teacher. If it’s not either one of those, then all of you have health insurance, and health insurance covers mental health, call somebody.”
When it comes to bringing awareness of the mental health of athletes on campus, Mr. Emmett Gill stated that all athletes should “have a card, with the counseling center’s number on it, a hotline number on it. Then it needs to have a space called Trusted Individual… Every athlete needs to have a card, or even give it to them electronically. I hear that all the time from the NFL to the MBA, and to college sports that when its time, no one knows what to do.” He then stated afterwards, “Whether it’s a QR code or a send out of a tweet or Instagram post monthly with that card and information on it. Ask athletes to like it or repost it, that way it shows up on other’s feed. To make sure every athlete has a plan.”
Moving forward, if you are in need of support, know that you can contact many people on campus who are here for you and want the best for you. Do not let fear hold you back from becoming better.
“Your worth isn’t your sport, your grades, or your diagnosis. You define your worth by being proud of the person that looks back at you in the mirror.”- Gwenn Schemm.