Kathy Twist worked as a registered nurse for hospitals in Buffalo, N.Y., for 18 years.
That experience allowed Twist, a senior associate athletic director for sports administration at the University at Buffalo, to pick up on a trend with student-athletes across the Mid-American Conference.
“We started seeing it around 2012,” Twist told Sporting News. “Something was going on with the mind-and-body connection. We saw more anxiety and depression. Not only our student-athletes, but it was reports from across the country. We kind of got a head start on it back then.”
The push to increase mental health awareness and care for student-athletes, however, is an ongoing educational process for student-athletes, coaches and administrators. That explains the initiative the MAC continued this week with its third Mental Health Summit in Cleveland. This year’s summit focused on suicide and self-harm prevention.
The best way to start addressing these issues? Twist said it’s about having those uncomfortable conversations.
“Looking at stigmas, this seems to be a societal thing where people don’t want to talk about mental health,” she said. “They don’t want to admit they have a mental health problem. That’s a challenge. We all bring with us our culture. We have to break some of those ideologies and paradigms that are preventing student-athletes or even staff to start talking about these things.”
The statistics highlight that problem: Suicide is a leading cause of death among young adults ages 15-24. Suicide among young females reached its highest level in 40 years in 2015, and suicide among males increased 30 percent from 2007-15, according to statistics released by VeryWell Mind in November.
Those issues are why MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher had several conversations with student-athletes on the 12 member campuses.
“The question was, ‘If there is an area where we could put some more emphasis on or put some more attention to, what it would be?’” he said. “The answer, resoundingly, came back in the area of mental health. We really dug into it after that.”
Steinbrecher, claiming that roughly 40 percent of college students deal with mental health ailments, said this is a broad issue that required a comprehensive response. He formed the MAC Mental Health Task Force and worked with administrators to put a series of best practices and protocols in place for the wellness of student-athletes.
Kelly Andrews, a senior associate athletic director at Toledo, was the head of the task force until Twist took over this year.
“We’re trying to make students more comfortable with simply having the conversation,” Williams said. “The biggest takeaway is the students want this, and they want to know it’s OK.”
That has been the tagline for student-athletes across the country dealing with mental health issues: “It’s OK to not be OK.”
That was the conversation that opened the summit Monday for a panel of doctors and student-athletes, including Ohio track-and-field athlete Emily Deering and former Kent State football player Luke Wollet, who were guest speakers at the event. The summit wasn’t just educational for the student-athletes, trainers and coaches. It was also a learning experience for school administrators.
“It’s clearly a topical moment,” Steinbrecher said. “It’s clearly focused a lot of attention on this issue. I think you would find the discussion around suicide and self-harm prevention was exceptionally open. There was incredible participation from the boatload of folks in attendance. It’s always an eye-opener.”
Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier backed up that assessment.
“They were jarring,” Frazier said. “I’ve been in college athletics for more than 30 years as a student-athlete, as a coach and now as athletic director. I’ve been at Division I, II and III, and that context is important. This issue of mental health and the alarming number of students taking their lives or having these issues haven’t been steady on the incline.”
“This is real,” Frazier said. “This is the real part of being a student-athlete and a college student. The bravery of these two young people as well as the conversations in small groups and all the things going on in our league, it is an important time to have this level of discourse.”
Frazier also said there was value in learning what other MAC schools are doing in terms of increasing mental health awareness on their campuses, with the key being noticing signs that aren’t always easy to spot. Frazier said hearing student-athletes talk about their issues sharpened his awareness as administrator — and as a father of three children.
“A lot of these individuals dealing with mental health issues were at the top of their sport, leaders on the campus. From a perception standpoint, you wouldn’t look at them and think there is any kind of issue,” he said.
Twist said the next step is evolving with the student-athlete and understanding the pressures they face that impact their mental wellness. That includes such factors as sleep deprivation — many athletes average six hours per night when they should be getting nine hours — and the impact of social media.
“With social media, you’re not getting away from it,” Twist said. “I don’t think I would have had the tools at 18 to deal with some of the attacks. The social media things like, ‘You didn’t play well,’ and all this that they are getting today.”
Twist said the MAC summits have worked together to attack those issues, and Steinbrecher said those collective efforts will continue. The next summit is scheduled for 2021.
“We listen to our student-athletes,” Steinbrecher said. “We empower our student-athletes. We challenge them and they challenge us. A huge part of this it’s an incredible educational effort. That is when you come to an understanding of how broad this issue and how big this problem is and how many people it affects.”
This will always be a sensitive topic, but Frazier, Williams and Twist left with a goal for their respective campuses: Keep talking about it. Keep it out in the open.
“You’re putting it on the refrigerator door and seeing it every morning,” Twist said. “I want to keep talking about this and normalize it as much as I can. This is part of the human condition to experience anxiety and depression. It’s not bad. Sometimes it can help us learn and grow, but when you get to the point where you are overwhelmed, that is when you need help.”