Mental Health Is Worse In College Athletes Now More Than Ever… It’s Time For a Change

John Armistead
February 19, 2024
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Hi, my name is John Armistead.

I’m a 24-year-old retired college athlete. I played two different division 1 sports, football at USC (the REAL USC) and lacrosse at the University of Richmond. Two different sports, two different schools, two vastly different experiences… one common glaring issue:

Mental health is a problem for student-athletes. A massive problem. I’ve had my battles with mental health. I’ve had days where I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, and honestly, I’ve had days where I didn’t even want to.

The most concerning part? So have a disturbingly high proportion of college student-athletes.

Coined the greatest silent pandemic in our country, student-athletes are put in an even more vulnerable spot than other college students. Nearly half of American youths struggle with a mental illness before turning 18, while 12% have experienced a bout of depression. But even though playing sports on a regular basis can boost physical and mental health, it can also be a key contributor to depression and anxiety for high-level athletes.

The issue of mental health in college students, specifically college student-athletes, is stigmatized and neglected. According to a 2011 survey by the National College Athletic Association, 30% of about 200,000 student-athletes reported feeling depressed. 50% also claimed to have experienced overwhelming anxiety, “and this information is twelve years out of date…”.

We, as athletes, minimize the effects of our depression, anxiety or eating disorders because society does not encourage us to come forward. On average, I would spend 7 hours per day for team activities, 18 hours of class weekly, and the pressure to physically perform no matter the circumstance (let alone other factors like social life, studying/homework hours, etc.). I wouldn’t have time to think about myself. All I thought about was getting myself through the day.

You can’t see mental health issues like you can see a broken bone.

About 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Among that group, only 30% seek help. But for college athletes with mental health conditions, less than 10% seek help. It has become a rampant issue that nobody wants to talk about, further perpetuating the fear of being vulnerable. College athletes are expected to be the bolder and stronger, why is it that they struggle so much with mental health?

During my time as a college athlete, I did not have the proper resources to fight my mental health battles. Athletic departments only sometimes have a sports psychologist, but having only one can only do so much. I found myself fighting battles in my own head — too hesitant to speak up, too overwhelmed to seek help. And that leads to problems. The sports psychologists were almost always booked out, and I didn’t have the means, resources, or time to seek out external help. Because of this, I just wouldn’t seek help. This was my experience, and I know many college athletes share that, too. And yet, in 2013, the NCAA declared mental health as the number 1 health and safety concern in the NCAA. Good, right?

Not exactly.

In March and April of 2022 alone, the nation watched 7 student-athletes die from suicide. 7 young adults with promising futures and a lifetime ahead of them. The issue isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. The stresses of being a student-athlete are more prevalent than ever, yet we are not taking the proper steps to mitigate it.

A few months ago, I hopped on an interview with Heisman trophy winner Caleb Williams and the Matthew Silverman Foundation to discuss our experience and battles with mental health. The video can be seen here:

Even the best athletes struggle with mental health. As stated in the video, “mental health doesn’t discriminate”. It can, and will, affect anyone and everyone at some point. Everyone fights these battles, let’s start fighting them together instead of alone. At the end of the day, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

In 2024 I will be launching AthletesTogether, the first all-in-one mobile application for student-athletes to get the help they deserve for mental health. Mental health doesn’t have a silver bullet solution, different people have different strategies and methods that work for themselves. AthletesTogether will serve as a platform for all kinds of different strategies and approaches to mental health, all while helping you connect to other athletes and sports psychologists across the country. The mixture of group therapy, activities, habit building, and many other features can hopefully be a starting point for student-athletes.

I’ll keep sharing updates along the way as I build this product and get it ready for student-athletes to use. At the end of the day, we hope to just make the world a better and happier place.

Together, we can.

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John Armistead

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