A silent struggle: The mental health crisis within college athletics

Courtesy of University of Maryland Athletics

From the outside, it seemed as if Taylor Liguori had the self-described “perfect” life. She was surrounded by a supportive and loving family, loyal friends and was playing softball at her dream school — the University of Maryland. 

But on the inside, things were much different as Liguori battled raging depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.

“I really fell into a dark place,” Liguori said. “I had been struggling and yet no one knew I was.”

Liguori is one of the thousands of student-athletes each year who experience mental health struggles. Depression affects about 7% of today’s adult population but ranges from 15% to 21% among college athletes, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Elizabeth Brown, a senior lecturer at Maryland for over four decades with expertise in both sports psychology and educational psychology, says the potential of being sidelined due to injury is one of the primary reasons college athletes struggle with their mental health. 

“Every day they go to practice and they see athletic trainers working on injured athletes and it’s a reminder that this could be you,” Brown, who focuses on the pressures children face in youth sports, said. “Will someone come along and replace you at your position [if you are injured]?”  

Along with injury concerns, collegiate athletes’ rigorous schedules can result in physical and mental burdens, Maryland pitcher Trinity Schlotterbeck said. Student-athletes are expected to balance their commitment to sports and schoolwork. 

“We have those morning workouts where we have to wake up early, that afternoon homework and it’s just pushing through the exhaustion and figuring out how to get everything done and managing your time well,” Schlotterbeck said. 

The pandemic made matters worse. 

In a first-person essay in which she disclosed her struggles with mental health, Liguori wrote she felt her “life was crumbling in front of [her] eyes” and the pandemic was “probably the worst thing that could have ever happened” to her. The then-freshman was stuck at home, away from friends and softball. 

“I was at home the entire time, being in my room…which isn’t the most ideal thing to do, especially for someone as active as a student-athlete,” Liguori said.

She was not alone. A 2021 National Collegiate Athlete Association (NCAA) survey of nearly 10,000 student-athletes across various collegiate levels showed that rates of reported mental health concerns were one-and-a-half to two times higher than prior to 2020. 

Collegiate athletic departments’ lack of mental health resources also plays a role in the student-athlete mental health crisis and furthers the long-standing stigma to not seek help, as reported by the survey.            

Fewer than half of students surveyed by the NCAA felt they would be comfortable personally seeking support from a mental health provider on campus while only about 50% of athletes reported that coaches take student-athletes’ mental health concerns seriously. 

“I really fell into a dark place,” she said. “I had been struggling and yet no one knew I was.”

“When I first came here [University of Maryland] and for decades there was no sports psychologist hired by the athletic department. Still, there are a lot of coaches who don’t really value certain psychology,” Brown said. “There’s a stigma many times attached to an athlete who searches out a sports psychologist and they’re afraid of what the coach and other players might think.” 

Courtesy of University of Maryland Athletics

Headed in the right direction 

With the increased attention towards sports psychology, more students are going into the field. That has helped athletes become more comfortable in seeing sports psychologists, Brown said.  

She identified two factors that can improve the mental health situation in college athletics.

One, spectators must avoid glorifying athletes.

“We can’t put them on a perfectionistic pedestal. They’re going to have problems and we have to recognize that,” Brown said. “That doesn’t take away from their athletic ability.”

Brown also puts athletic departments responsible for improving athletes’ mental health.

“They have to be aware that these kids are struggling. It has to come from the top,” she said. “From the university to the athletic director to the coaches and to everybody else who supports a student-athlete.”

Maryland softball coach Mark Montgomery is a strong proponent of ensuring his players are in the right frame of mind.

“The first part is making sure they don’t define themselves by their sport. It’s part of what they do but not who they are,” he said. “If you have a bad day at the office, strike out a few times, make an error or two, it doesn’t mean we don’t love you, it doesn’t mean we don’t care. It doesn’t mean if we don’t play you the next game it’s because you are a bad person.”

As for Liguori, she sought help and advocated for others struggling with their mental health to do the same.

“I went to go see a therapist, I talked to friends, I went on medication,” the senior said. “Things that most people don’t want to talk about, talking about it is the only way to get people to do it.”