Mental Health Inquiry

By Cooper, Kenneth J. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 23, 2014 | Go to article overview

Mental Health Inquiry


Cooper, Kenneth J., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Last year, the NCAA created a Sport Science Institute, led by a medical specialist, to address the range of health and safety issues facing college athletes. Concussions topped the list, given public concern about that injury at all levels of sports, particularly in football.

"No matter what else we focus on, if we don't take a really well-demonstrated leadership role on concussion, I think everything else will fall on deaf ears," says Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer, who oversees the Sport Science Institute. "So concussion[s] did become a big priority. That was in my head 24/7 and really still is."

The institute has taken a scientific approach to finding a solution, partnering with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) on a $30 million study to conduct brain imaging exams on all college athletes at 14 schools before and after sustaining a concussion. Also underway is a systematic search for effective ways to educate coaches and athletes on how to prevent head injuries.

Less predictably, the Sport Science Institute has tackled another problem: mental health. College athletes suffer from the same mental issues as many other college students, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse.

"Our vision is [that treatment for] mental health will be accessible to student-athletes, [just] as for an injured ACL or a back sprain," says Hainline, who is also a neurologist with a background in sports medicine.

Directors of counseling and sports medicine services on campuses hailed the NCAA's decision to take on mental health issues, for which college students in general appear to be seeking help more often.

"I think it's definitely significant," says Dr. Gregory Eells, associate director of Gannett Health Services and director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University. "I think the burden of being an athlete and a student, together, creates some unique challenges and some unique stressors, for sure."

Dr. Jessica Higgs, director of health services at Bradley University, agrees.

"I think it's a good decision on their part. It's an issue that has been sort of avoided or ignored, and a lot of times people like to think student-athletes aren't like other students on campus," Higgs says. "But they have all the exact same issues."

Those issues extend to scholar-athletes at Division III schools, which do not offer athletic scholarships.

"Given stress contributes] to mental health problems, given the impact of physical health on mental health and academic functioning, it makes a lot of sense for the NCAA to focus on mental health in athletes," says Dr. Belinda McIntosh, an assistant professor and staff psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University.

Concussions impact health

A concussion is a physical injury, but it too can have an impact on mental health.

"You definitely see changes in mood," says Eells, chair of the mental health section of the American College Health Association. "You have to be aware of things like depression, anxiety and other disorders that can be associated with concussions."

Hainline, whose arrival at the NCAA coincided with the institutes creation in January 2013, says the three-year study that began this fall is designed to establish baseline information about how a concussion progresses.

At the 14 participating schools, including three military service academies, 37,000 athletes will have their brains scanned with MRIs. The more than 700 who are expected to suffer concussions will have periodic follow-up exams for six months.

In addition, athletes in five contact sports will wear medical sensors - football, mens and women's soccer, men's and women's lacrosse, and men's and women's ice hockey.

"It's by far and away the largest prospective clinical study ever conducted in the history of concussion," Hainline says.

The NCAA's partnering with the DOD on the study may sound like an odd pairing, but Hainline says there are good reasons for doing so. …

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