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Publish date: Aug 18, 2010

GNAC seminar cites mental health among athlete concerns

By Greg Johnson

BOSTON – Participants at a Great Northeast Athletic Conference seminar last week learned that mental health is just as important as physical health for student-athletes, and that mental-health problems often are harder to diagnose.

The GNAC’s fourth annual Professional Development Seminar – this year focusing on the mental health of student-athletes – was funded by an NCAA Division III Strategic Initiatives Grant and attracted more than 100 student-athletes, athletics administrators, coaches and athletic trainers from around the conference.

While the idea of student-athlete mental health doesn’t always receive the attention that physical injuries generate, people within college athletics know that stress inside and outside of sports participation can lead to eating disorders, substance abuse, depression and anxiety. When these issues arise, it is imperative that a coach, athletic trainer or administrator recognize them quickly. What could be interpreted as a slump or just a bad stretch could be a sign that a student-athlete is having a problem.

“A topic like this shines a light on it for all of us,” said Alexis Mastronardi, the associate athletics director and sports information director at Emmanuel. “The timing is good because we’re going into the fall sports seasons in a few weeks.”

That is the type of response GNAC Commissioner Joe Walsh received from his membership after each of the four seminars. The previous versions focused on student-athlete well being, sportsmanship and gender equity.

“We’re all a big team here,” Walsh said. “For these kids, the coach is going to be the most influential person in their lives for the next four years. In no way do I expect our coaches to become psychologists or psychiatrists, but this is something we should talk about in case they encounter a situation where a student-athlete has a mental-health issue.”

Keynote remarks from Stephen Durant, co-director of the sport psychology program and clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, focused on having “go-to” people to speak with during trying times, and what he called, “the golden rule of mental health,” which is not to suffer alone.

Durant said signs that a student-athlete is suffering a mental-health issue include:

  • Long stretches of irritability or apathy
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Inexplicable underperformance over time
  • Mood swings
  • Becoming more socially isolated
  • A downturn in performance in school or social behavior
  • Angry outbursts that don’t fit the stimuli

“It was huge for the conference to do a seminar like this,” said Durant, a chief consultant for the medical team that serves the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins. “They have clearly thought about what it means to look out for the well-being of the student-athlete.”

Other panelists included Ken Duckworth, the medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; Kelly Moran, the director of counseling at Mt. Ida; and Samantha Sandland, a former soccer student-athlete at Salve Regina, who suffered a major depressive episode during her sophomore year of college.

Sandland, who returned to play her final two seasons, including serving as team captain as a senior, courageously shared her story with the attendees.

Another theme of the seminar centered on lessons learned from a lifetime of coaching.

“One of the greatest gifts a coach can give is love and understanding,” said Walsh, whose conference celebrated its 15th anniversary and inducted an inaugural GNAC Hall of Fame class during the seminar. “Everybody wants to win, but more importantly, a coach can be the most influential person in that young person’s life. For the most part, it’s the students’ first time away from their parents, and they are developing as people.”

Walsh decided on mental health as a topic after talking about it with coaches and administrators around the league.

“With the economy the way it is, we’re seeing more kids seek counseling because their family can’t afford for them to stay in school,” said Walsh, who is starting his sixth year as GNAC commissioner. “And they say, ‘I love going to school here.’ ”

Walsh hopes the information provided will help should a mental-health issue arise on campus.

“Maybe the coaches will be lucky and they won’t have to use any of this,” Walsh said. “But the reality is, they may.”