The 2017 Black Student-Athlete Summit brought 300 athletes, coaches, academic faulty and athletic directors to Austin, Texas for three days of seminars, lectures and panels. A variety of topics germane to the black college athlete experience were discussed. The summit’s centerpiece event was a frank conversation on mental health awareness, which was covered by ESPN's The Undefeated.
The two-day seminar featured a variety of respected mental health professionals, including Mercer University’s associate professor of counseling, Caroline Brackette. Brackette began her presentation by lamenting that many student athletes, “do not have outlets to talk about issues that are happening with them…having someone they could talk to honestly about what was going on, what they were afraid of, what they were stressed about beneficial for them. There also this stigma that if I seek help, I’m seen as weak.”
University athletics programs are well known for having a strong support system for dealing with sports injuries. Brackette stated that athletics programs need to take mental health as seriously as they do physical health, providing students with “a counselor who is sort of like that doctor or that coach who’s going to help you deal with the issues you’re not able to deal with .”
Another panelist, Dr. Angel Brutus of Atlanta-based sports counseling firm Synergistic Solutions, discussed how her experience as a counselor allowed her to reach athletes in a way coaches typically cannot, “from the coach’s perspective, they were on point. But because the athlete and I had been working with each other and they understood my role with the team, they were able to pull me to the side.” This understanding allowed the player Dr. Brutus was working with a freedom of expression that the player could not have achieved with the coach, for fear, as Professor Brackette stated, of being perceived as weak.
This discussion is an urgent one. The American College Health Association found in 2014 that 30 percent of their survey group of 195,000 students reported having suffered from depression during the previous 12 months. 50 percent of that group reported battling depression and anxiety simultaneously. And in 2015, the NCAA found that suicide was the second leading cause of death among college students.
Depression and anxiety are correlated with poor athletic performance, low grades substance abuse and suicide, which is why it's vital that conversation is necessary. Most athletes have a support system for their sports needs, however, when it comes down to personal problems and individual distinction between the athlete and their sport, there's typically no one to turn to.
With statistics like these, it is clear that something needs to change. In concluding her speech, Professor Brackette offered a place to start.“When you have coaches who also understand the importance of a player’s mental and emotional health, that helps because when the students see the coaches saying, ‘OK, you need to get some extra assistance,’ they’re more likely to want to do it.”
Coaches and other members of the student-athletes support system know better than anyone else how to speak to an injured athlete who wants to play again as soon as possible. And it is they who hold the keys to making it OK to talk about mental health in the same light.