Taking appropriate steps to maintain positive mental health is essential for athletes to succeed in their athletic, academic, and personal lives.
Amelia Van Der Werff shared her experiences with mental health as a junior and athlete on the University of Utah volleyball team.
Van Der Werff was transferred from Central Tennessee, but she explained that the experience “has taken a toll” on her mental health. She wasn’t fully aware of the impact sports had on her mental health. [her] I try to figure it out myself.” However, once she transferred to college, she found that college resources, such as sports psychologists and tutors, helped improve her mental health significantly.
Jason Hansiker is a psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience working with athletes of all ages. Most recently, he worked as a consultant for the Utah He Jazz team. He is also a psychiatrist at the Huntsman Institute of Mental Health.
“I think college athletes in general probably have more mental health issues than non-athletes who attend college or students who don’t attend college,” Hunziker said. .
He gave many reasons why this is so imbalanced, mostly due to high anxiety and stress levels. It includes staying competitive.
In addition to volleyball, student-athletes like Van Der Werff must balance the stresses of being a college student, including academics and interpersonal relationships. She manages stress by relying on her family, especially her sister who plays volleyball.
The team aspect of the sport was also a big boon for van der Werff. She shared, “I’m really blessed to have her teammates.” They have weekly meetings and accountability partners to make sure they stay at the top of their school and maintain strong mental health.
Connecting athletes with resources such as sports psychologists has been a big help for Van Der Werff.
“We have coaches meetings and they ask us how we are doing mentally,” said van der Werff. “We had a sports psychologist come in yesterday and talk to us about mental games.
Van Der Werff recently joined a group called Unmuted Utah, which focuses on athletes talking about mental health. Her goal is to “break down barriers” and open up conversations about mental health.
“Athlete mental health is stigmatized,” says Van Der Werff. “It sounds great to have all the gear and be able to play, and this is a great opportunity. Make athletes aware that it’s okay to experience mental health issues and let people know the resources we have [is vital]”
Funziker recommends that students, especially student-athletes, who struggle with mental health, seek help from someone, whether it’s a friend, coach, or trainer.
There are many resources on campus such as the Student Counseling Center, Wellness Center, Huntsman Mental Health Institute, or National Crisis Hotlines like 988.
He also mentioned the detrimental effects that injuries such as concussions have on mental health.
“We have a huge stigma attached to mental health issues,” Hunziker says. “I mean, it’s easy for college athletes to not play because of a sprained ankle or some other injury, but it’s very hard for someone to say they don’t play because they’re depressed.”
Van Der Werff feels embarked on a journey of improvement and exploration. He’s not always perfect, but he’s happy with his own progress.
“Looking now, [being a college athlete] It had a positive effect on my mental health,” said van der Werff. “I have grown as a person. … In a few weeks or a month you can change the way you think about things. It’s really cool. My mental health has improved and it has helped me learn who I am as a player.