‘Stop the Stigma,’ athletes learn, told


Kent State senior soccer player Madison Helterbran labels herself an advocate of mental health awareness because she feels it’s a big issue that often goes overlooked.

Richie Muhall

The hashtags are not the ones usually associated with college sports: #ItsOKtoNOTbeOK, #StopTheStigma and #TakingMACtion.

They serve as symbols of a major initiative at Kent State, in the Mid-American Conference and in the NCAA—a movement to spread awareness, even change a culture that has rarely acknowledged that student-athletes can have mental health problems.

The hashtags have become the MAC’s platform statement to spur action to destigmatize mental health issues and encourage student-athletes to seek the help and treatment they need.

There’s a negative stigma attached with admitting to having a mental health issue and a huge chunk of the MAC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s initiative entails eradicating that stigma. The goal is to stop the stigma and stress to people, especially student-athletes, that it’s OK to not be OK.

As Eastern Michigan University tweeted out earlier this year, “Seeking help for mental health should be just like seeking treatment for a physical injury.”

Kent State SAAC, the student organization that serves as a liaison between athletes and administration, also took to Twitter to make an effort to destigmatize mental health with personal messages.

The group held its first annual Mental Health Awareness Week, which took place Feb. 14- 20. It also organized a “Love Your Selfie” photo booth at one of the men’s basketball games this past season, where students could have their photo taken while holding cardboard cutouts inscribed with the words “It’s OK not to be OK,” “Stop the Stigma” and “I’m Stigma-free” next to their faces.

MAC Associate Commissioner Kristin Williams, also director of Career Services, said the growing voice of student-athlete shift has been the primary factor in making the mental health component of the student-athlete a top priority.

“The focus of the NCAA is now back on the student-athlete and what they want,” Williams said. “It’s been occurring all along, and I think it’s finally being realized that we need to do something about it.”

The realization is that as many as one in every four college athletes deal with some symptoms of mental health problems.

According to an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in January, about 25 percent of college athletes in a study reported “clinically relevant” levels of depressive symptoms. About 6.3 percent of athletes met the criteria for clinically significant depression. Female athletes were about two times more likely to experience the symptoms as males.

A study by Drexel University and Kean University researchers of 465 athletes at a unnamed Division I institution showed similar results — that nearly 30 percent of female athletes and 18 percent of male athletes showed symptoms of depression over a three-year period.

“This study shows that the rates of depression among athletes are probably comparable to rates in the general college population,” said Eugene Hong, the study’s principal investigator and an associate dean at Drexel University College of Medicine, “and it highlights the need for increased mental health screening for athletes as part of standard sports medicine care.”

The NCAA has recently recognized what the studies found and released new guidelines for institutions to follow when dealing with the mental health of college athletes. These new guidelines, which were released in early January, outline four best practices for mental health care for college athletes.


“Concussions may be the elephant in the room, but mental health is really, I think, going to be a game changer for the NCAA,” NCAA medical chief Brian Hainline recently told Inside Higher Ed. “My hope is that mental health is going to become as accessible to every student-athlete as an ankle sprain, and the NCAA is going to take a leadership role in telling the rest of the United States of America how to move away from the pathetic way it handles mental health. And it is pathetic.”

Follow the lead

When MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher reached out to members of his conference and asked them what the MAC needed to improve, they said no one across the country was addressing the issue of mental health among student-athletes.

“It’s challenging,” he said. “You have gone from being a star athlete probably every step of the way, and now you’re in college and you’re playing with the elite of the elite. Sometimes you don’t always have the success you had in the past. So how can we help people develop the coping mechanisms?”

Institutions such as the NCAA and the MAC have focused so much on the physical health aspect of collegiate athletics—concussions in football being the most recent example—but so little has been done to address the mental health aspect of sports in collegiate athletics,” Steinbrecher said.

“What we do in intercollegiate athletics should be about the holistic development of that young man or that young women,” Steinbrecher said.

In 2013, Steinbrecher appointed a task force of athletic directors, faculty representatives and health professionals to study the issue. Working in tandem with SACC and the NCAA, the MAC’s task force, chaired by Kelly Andrews, senior associate athletic director at the University of Toledo, examined how campuses within the MAC were managing mental health among student-athletes and devised a list of best practices, which ended up being a three-pronged approach to tackling the issue of mental health among student-athletes. After consulting with NCAA administration, the task force presented its findings to the MAC Joint Council, which ratified the protocols. These three items are proactive education, creative of “care teams” made up of individuals in regular close contact with the student-athletes that can recognize signs of mental health problems, and staff that can support and treat people who are struggling.

Steinbrecher said implementing these sweeping changes all starts will basic education. Institutions in the MAC should be telling their student athletes that they can help, where to find help and inform them of what resources are out there.

Making steps

Institutions such as the MAC have followed the NCAA’s lead and organized events and programs to help raise awareness of college athletes’ mental health concerns In February, the MAC held the nation’s first-ever Mental Health Summit in conjunction with the NCAA. Administrators, student-athletes, coaches and support personnel attended the event consisting of speakers and discussions dealing with identifying problems, discussing solutions and examining the best ways to foster good mental health among student-athletes.

“The NCAA’s (Dr. Brian) Hainline intended the MAC Summit to serve as a sort of ‘skeleton agenda’ for other conferences to follow,” Williams said.

Steinbrecher was overwhelmed by the positive response from attendees. As it turned out, the summit, spearheaded by Williams, exceeded Steinbrecher’s expectations and could become an annual event.

Kent State senior soccer player Madison Helterbran and fifth-year senior wrestler Mike Vollant represented Kent State at the summit.

Each student-athletes who deals with mental health issues such as depression has a different way of dealing with their problem. Some students might take the “talk to someone” route and meet with the school psychologist. Others might not want to talk to other people about their issues. It’s a case-by-case issue, and frankly, a personal preference, Helterbran said.

“If you’re depressed [for example], you’re not always going to come out and say it, so that’s why we want to have different ways student-athletes can have someone they want to talk to,” Helterbran said.

While growing up in a generation governed by the “suck-it-up” mentality, Muccio said athletes were expected to keep quiet about their mental anguish, but now things have changed. Muccio said he thinks society’s view of mental health is changing. Discussion of mental health issues is more common, and it’s much more acceptable to seek treatment.

“I’m glad that the MAC is making steps forward to make a difference in this,” Helterbran said. “Hopefully what we’re doing can kick-start other conferences and other schools. We want to make sure people know that it’s OK not to be OK.”

Richie Muhall is a sports reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]