The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) announced Wednesday a broad set of guidelines it believes should be adopted as the standard for helping collegiate athletes cope with injury-related conditions, mental health problems, and illness, including depression and suicidal thoughts.
The push stems from the organization’s belief that mental health deserves the same quality of care as physical health. Mental health often bears a stigma far greater, however, which has prompted NATA to highlight the increased trust between athlete and trainer in their fight to make the proposed guidelines practiced universally.
NATA has outlined several key functions as vital to monitoring student mental health, such as helping students cope with depressive or suicidal thoughts, and overcoming hurdles related to season- or career-ending injuries.
The organization has headquartered its fight out of Indianapolis, the home location for the entire National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).
Recently, the NCAA has directed much of its mental health efforts toward football players suffering devastating head injuries — often full-blown concussions — that can end careers and even produce postmortem accounts of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that used to be found only in boxers. CTE results from repeated sub-concussive force and has been notoriously linked with dementia in former NFL athletes. It’s for this reason that head-on tackling maneuvers are generally banned in collegiate and professional football.
NATA’s most recent push requests the NCAA to direct its course more toward substance abuse and broader mental health. Substance abuse was implicated as one of the chief concerns, which the organization published in a paper called “Developing a Plan to Recognize and Refer Student Athletes with Psychological Concerns at the College Level.”
"Despite the risk of negative results, including diminished performance and loss of scholarships, collegiate athletes seem to use most substances and alcohol at higher rates than do age-matched non-athletes in the college population," the Associated Press quoted the report as saying. "Student-athletes were more likely to report binge drinking than the general student population because they viewed alcohol use as normal."
Also among NATA’s concerns are athletes who suffer injuries that put them out of commission for years at a time, sometimes ending their careers altogether. For these athletes, helping them through the coping process is as much a physical rehabilitation as a mental one. Often, the players have dedicated nearly two decades to honing their skill all in hopes for a shot at the pros. One wrong step and a severe ligament tear could send them into a spiral of depression.
Rates of mental illness are twice as great for adults aged 18-25 than for people above the age of 50. According to NATA, the chances that a college has athletes on campus with some form of mental illness is a virtual certainty. Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people aged 15-44.
In this way, prevention is decidedly critical to NATA in guaranteeing athletes are in a healthy mental state. Much like diagnostic physical examinations, the organization urges all college athletic training programs to ask athletes to fill out questionnaires — in confidence — so the trainer can discern any potential problems. It also wants these standards disseminated throughout the chain of each school’s athletic department, creating a node of awareness at each point along the way.
"We recommend that this consensus statement be shared with coaches, athletic administrators, counseling services, the office of student affairs, risk managers, and general counsel,” the report said, “to better educate and create an interest in developing an institutional plan for recognizing and referring student-athletes with psychological concerns.”