The University of Maine (UMaine) is adding a mental health program to its athletic department.
UMaine is receiving $640,000 in a one-time distribution from the NCAA, which this spring distributed funds to nearly 350 Division I schools for the purpose of providing better support to student-athletes.
The money had to be used for new programs or to enhance existing programs (not to buy more equipment, increase salaries, or hire more coaches, for example). Each school was required to submit a spending plan.
UMaine, which has more than 450 student-athletes, chose to use the funding to prioritize mental health care for student-athletes, in part because students themselves overwhelming identified a desire for such a program.
Lynn H. Coutts, senior associate director of athletics at UMaine, who is overseeing the program’s implementation, said that a group of student-athletes called the Elite 13 met throughout the year and offered input to the athletic department about ways they could have a better experience.
“One of the major things that three-quarters of the room said was mental health,” Coutts said. “So it’s our responsibility to learn more.”
Coutts said the school hosted a guest speaker who spoke on topics related to mental health and students asked “tons” of questions. “Everyone says ‘Nobody talks about mental health,’” Coutts said. “But I don’t believe that. I believe that if you give them a forum, give them a safe environment – kids will talk. So I need to find people who they can talk to.”
Students indicated that sometimes they aren’t comfortable talking to coaches about personal issues. Until now, if a student-athlete was struggling with anxiety or had another mental health concern, the student would be sent to the school’s counseling center.
The new program will specifically be for the athletic department and under the sports medicine umbrella and will offer a collaborative unit of care with mental health professionals on the team.
Coutts said details of the program are still being worked out over the summer, with plans to start implementing this fall. She has been collaborating with many others, including the school’s athletic trainer and director of the UMaine Counseling Center, to create the program’s structure, and is also getting input from psychologists and psychiatrists.
“We have to be educated,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to provide the best possible experience for our student-athletes.”
Student-athletes face unique challenges. “Being a student-athlete at any level, especially Division I, there’s a lot expected of them,” Coutts said.
The new mental health program will not only assist students from their perspective as an athlete, but will also help them deal with “every day” stressors and anxieties that college students face.
“Some students come to college with things that maybe they haven’t dealt with,” Coutts said. Also, “Being a student-athlete, obviously, they are students first – balancing their coursework with their practices, travel, workouts, nutrition, sleep. It can be an overwhelming feeling.”
“The good and bad – all that stuff is part of life,” Coutts said, and she wants to help student-athletes – many of whom have always been high-achievers – understand that it’s okay not to be perfect.
She also hopes the program will help student-athletes transition into college – and out of college. “We find seniors have anxiety of the unknown,” she said. After years of having set academic and athletic practice schedules, “They worry about what they are going to do once they are done,” she said.
In addition to offering counseling for students, the program will include education and training for coaches and support staff, to help them recognize possible mental health issues among athletes and to know how to properly direct them to services. Coutts also said the program will facilitate meetings for student-athletes who want to get together to talk and share experiences, without a professional in the room.
By Pamela Berard