College athletes learn to ask for help with mental health

The Northwestern women's basketball team observes a moment of silence in honor of Jordan Hankins, a player who died by suicide Jan. 9, before a Jan. 14 game against Indiana.

By Astasia Williams

On Jan 9, 2017, the Northwestern women’s basketball team endured a tragedy with one of their own. Jordan Hankins, a 19-year-old sophomore from Indianapolis, died by suicide. Hankins was on the pre-med fast track and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. The reasoning for Hankins’s suicide has not been made public.

Her death is the latest example of the need to address mental health challenges among college athletes and treat the issues more extensively.

According to the National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression, one in 12 college students make a suicide attempt. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 20-24. In 2013, Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, declared mental health as the No. 1 health and safety concern for NCAA members.

As mental health becomes a more public issue, are there enough support services to help the student-athletes cope with their demanding schedules and live up to these extremely high expectations on a regular basis? Are there licensed practitioners staffed in the athletic departments who have experience dealing with mental health?

Before student-athletes have the chance to take a seat on the first day of class, everyone knows their names. But sometimes the pressure of wanting to succeed both inside and outside sports isn’t easy.

Imani Boyette, a rookie for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, is familiar with the pressure of being great. A survivor of two suicide attempts in her childhood years, Boyette was battling for her life while excelling on the court.

Being sexually abused by a relative when she was younger triggered the depression. When she was 10, Boyette tried to overdose. Then, five years later, while playing for the USA Basketball Under-17 team, she attempted to end her life again.

“When you’re going through depression you don’t think the suffering will stop,” Boyette said. “Now, to see a different part of the world, and to see others could be going through the same thing. I just want them to know to hold on.”

Boyette was ready to quit basketball for good while playing collegiately at Texas. Instead, her coaches convinced her to stay and added professional counselors to the coaching staff. She says that talking to someone is the best thing athletes can do.

“I think it is hard for athletes to speak up in environments that don’t encourage it,” Boyette said. “Athletes are seen as elite, as if they have it all, and society often categorizes mental illness as weakness. Therefore, it is often hard to speak up about it.”

Isaiah Woods used to play wide receiver for the University of Washington. He caught 13 passes and played in 13 games as a freshman during the 2015 season. But on May 29, 2016, he made an announcement on Twitter that many were not expecting and could change the way college athletes are viewed. Woods announced that he has been dealing with anxiety and depression, and that he had decided to stop playing for Washington. Woods revealed he had been hospitalized after having panic attacks. He briefly returned to the team before deciding to leave school for a fresh start, while continuing to address his mental health challenges.

“It starts from when we first put on the pads,” Woods said. “When you first put on that helmet, it’s no being a little kid. We are taught there’s no crying… there’s no emotion. Football is serious time.”

Chris Carr, a sports and performance psychologist and coordinator at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, notes that the development of youth sports in America has increased pressure and the demands for college athletes.

“A lot of these men and women play on the travel teams and they are usually the best players on the team,” Carr said. “They are being recruited, and once they arrive on campus, they are amongst the best. If they haven’t learned how to deal with adversity and setbacks, then that can be significant in their struggles.”

Carr and Woods both said it is important for athletes to find ways to cope with anxiety or depression with a hobby outside of their athletic identity. Boyette’s love for poetry and art helped her cope with her struggles at Texas.

“I love poetry and luckily Austin [Texas] has a huge slam poetry scene,” Boyette said. “I like poetry because it allows people to connect on sheer human emotion or experience despite their outside differences.”

Carr also notes that society’s stereotypes of college athletes impact how athletes are trained to think. Some athletes think they are perceived as invincible.

Being an athlete at an elite level is a challenge in itself. Once you add academics and campus activities to the equation and try balance a social life, it does not get easier.

“What gets stressful for them is the over identification with the athletic identity,” Carr said. “If they get injured, they can lose their scholarship. It can be something very traumatic for the athlete. The process of counseling is to help them reestablish a focus and a balance in their life so they can optimize when they perform and what role they are performing in.”

Boyette and Woods said that being embarrassed and being perceived as “weak” is a big reason a lot of athletes choose not to speak up.

“I know the stigma behind it,” Woods said. “I’ve been in the locker room my whole life. You have to find that one person you trust and go through it together. But I understand because the first three therapy sessions I went to, we just sat there. I didn’t say a word [before eventually opening up].”

Woods said that it got to the point where football was no longer his escape. After leaving Washington, he has been able to focus on fashion and designing. He is currently working on his fashion line, WaveGod.

In 2015, the NCAA conducted an anonymous survey of student-athletes, asking them about their experiences. Thirty percent of those who responded said they are overwhelmed because of the physical and mental demands their sport requires. According to the NCAA’s Mental Health Best Practices, there has been a general increase in student-athletes who suffer from anxiety and depression.

While it’s important for athletes to be able to speak up about their issues. It’s also important on the coaching side to know how to acknowledge the symptoms and how to deal with mental health illnesses. Dr. Kiki Baker-Barnes, athletic director and former women’s basketball coach at Dillard University in New Orleans, learned that athletes act out for different reasons.

“Not all athletes respond to just getting on a line and being run to the ground,” Barnes said. “That can only risk an injury and make matters worse. I realized that knowing your personnel on the team is just as important as knowing their talents on the court. I spent a lot more time talking than punishing when I noticed out acting-out behavior.”

In response to the survey, the NCAA in March 2016 released Mental Health Best Practices, an online publication with seminars and videos to help create a support system for student-athletes to address their mental health and well-being. The program received endorsements from 25 doctors and medical organizations around the country.

“I think it is important for them to acknowledge that [student-athletes] are still human,” Boyette said. “Student athletes are put in difficult positions because not only are they representing themselves, their families, but they are also representing age-old universities and their school’s reputation. You can’t do it alone nor should you have to.

“It’s OK to ask for help.”

Photo at top: The Northwestern women’s basketball team observes a moment of silence in honor of Jordan Hankins, a player who died by suicide Jan. 9, before a Jan. 14 game against Indiana. (Photo by Northwestern Athletics)