BOISE, IDAHO — One of the many things we've learned from our Finding Hope series is that anyone can be affected when it comes to mental health. That includes some of the biggest, fastest, and strongest young people you'll ever meet, collegiate student-athletes.
Imagine a basketball player trying to study for a geometry exam while thinking about a big shot they missed in their last game, or a football player taking a mid-term with thoughts of a dropped pass fresh in their mind. The pressure that student-athletes feel to succeed can be incredibly overwhelming and potentially damaging, and that's why our local university was one of the first to seriously address it. We went to Boise State to find out how they're addressing the issue in today's finding hope.
Being a college student is mentally taxing enough as it is. But when you add on playing a sport to the mix, it can become incredibly overwhelming.
"The spotlight's a little brighter, the pressures might be a little greater, if something happens, more people are going to know about it," said Boise State University Associate Athletic Director for Sports Performance Health and Wellness Marc Paul.
Over the past several years, administrators at Boise State University saw more and more student-athletes seeking help and guidance through trying times.
"We would refer out into the community, we would refer to our health services on campuses, but even with that, even with the network we had, just like most places around the country, we were just overwhelmed," said Paul.
As administrators kept discussing how to tackle student-athlete mental heath on a broader scale, a first-step solution became evident through Stephanie Donaldson, a former student-athlete and psychologist who was seeing several BSU athletes on a regular basis.
"She was just such a good fit and we just kept referring to her and kept going down that road, and I thought man that'd be really nice. We need this position so bad, it would be really nice if we could get Stephanie on our staff," said Paul.
And a year ago, that's exactly what happened as she was hired on by BSU full time and got to work right away.
"I do a lot of direct client care so I'm meeting one on one with student-athletes, I also meet with teams, do de-briefings so if we have some issues that come up with teams I can come in and do a debrief, I'm doing a lot of educational and preventative work so again focusing on the prehab for mental health," said Boise State University Director of Athletic Performance Psychology Stephanie Donaldson.
But one of her biggest focuses since coming on board...breaking the stigma of seeking mental health, a problem that has always plagued prideful athletes.
"There's lots of times when I just hang out a practice or go into the training rooms, cause then I'm just looked at like one of their providers on their sports performance team and so it just kind of normalizes the process and normalizes help-seeking too," said Donaldson.
In the year since the university hired a full-time sports performance psychologist for their athletic program, it's not only doing big things for student-athletes...
"An important piece of the puzzle, not just for performance but for helping to create and mold and shape student-athletes that are going to go out in the years to come and be productive, contributing members of society beyond just their sport," said Donaldson.
But also coaches and the entire training staff.
"We know what happens on the field when a player gets hurt, how to call 911, how to stabilize an injury, all that, but when somebody has a mental breakdown, there's a whole new set of rules that come into play that a lot of people aren't familiar with. Stephanie helped us out with that," said Paul.
The NCAA has made suggestions to it's schools on how to handle mental health issues with student-athletes, but doesn't have any mandatory guidelines. Regardless, Boise State plans to bring on more help for Stephanie at some point, but in the meantime, she's happy to be making a difference.
"It's a cool experience to be able, and an honor to be able to be a part of that, and help them shape and mold that," said Donaldson.
Just last Tuesday, Boise State University announced an initiative called Bronco Bold, which is designed to showcase all aspects of the department’s mental health programming for student-athletes, coaches and staff. The main emphasis of the mental health initiative will revolve around reducing stigma, raising awareness, and cultivating resiliency for the school's student-athletes. Keep a look out for helmet stickers, hair ribbons, and patches on Bronco team uniforms in an effort to unite everyone in the Bronco Bold effort.