Chicago high schools make slow progress to address athletes’ mental health

Roshawn Russel, athletic director and varsity basketball head coach at St. Rita’s High School, in south Chicago.

By Clara Facchetti
Medill Reports

High school athletes tend to face greater pressure than other students, but many schools in Chicago lack services to help them.

Several coaches in Chicago, who oversee volleyball, basketball and cross-country, said they noticed higher rates of anxiety in their athletes due to intense pressure from competition, tough losses and difficulties managing personal feelings such as grief or depression. Many said that their schools were not well-equipped to provide targeted mental health care for student-athletes.

The competitive nature of sports is widely known to put immense pressure on athletes at every level. Mental health professionals are now common in the elite collegiate and professional leagues, but few of them work with high school student athletes, coaches said.

According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, one in five adolescents is diagnosed with a serious mental health disorder over the course of his life. For student athletes, high school can even be harder to manage.

A 2015 study by the Journal of Athletic Training, a peer-reviewed publication focused on athletic research, found that student-athletes experienced more negative emotions and were more prone to triggers such as sleep disturbances, appetite losses and decreased self-confidence, among others.

Roshawn Russell, the athletic director and basketball coach at St Rita’s High School, said he sometimes noticed student-athletes struggling with pressure to perform. Recently, he also had to help an athlete through grief.

“It’s important for us to be as educated in the mental health area as we can,” Russell said.

The basketball coach added that social media has also increased competitiveness and pressure to perform. He said that student-athletes were aware of their competition’s every move and success through Instagram and Twitter, which could have a negative impact on their mental health.

At Chicago Bulls Prep High School, a charter school in the Near West Side of the city, girls’ soccer coach Katelyn Coules said that social workers never worked specifically with student athletes because they were overloaded with regular cases.

Instead, Coules said she relied on her own skills to help her student athletes.

“My background is in special education and I have a degree in emotional impairment,” she said. “I implement that as best as I can.”

Coules said that when she noticed an athlete struggling, she asked them to write down their problems and always made sure that they could express their emotions.

At John Marshall Metropolitan High School, the situation was even more difficult, said Stefanie Dobrin, who used to coach cross-country at the west Chicago public school. Dobrin said that Marshall had social workers, but they were present a couple of days a week, only during school hours. The school was not available for comments.

Like Coules, Dobrin said she relied on her own experience to help her athletes. As a cross-country runner in high school, she learned to deal with injuries and body transformations, which informs her coaching today, she said.

High schools often face budget restraints, making it nearly impossible to have mental health professionals in the athletic department, said Teresa Behrend Fletcher, a sports and health professor at Adler University.

Instead, Behrend Fletcher said that schools should focus on providing specific resources for student athletes. She suggested relying on webinars or partnerships with universities to educate coaches and student athletes on mental health.

De La Salle Institute, a Catholic high school in south Chicago is an example of one way a school can provide better help for student-athletes.

Girls’ volleyball coach Anna Marassa said that when coaches become aware of a student athlete experiencing anxiety or trauma, they report it to the counseling office immediately.

In Chicago, the 2019 teachers’ strike has led to a new contract which will provide additional social workers to the city’s public schools. The new measures could improve the way that athletic departments address student athletes’ mental health.

Another potential impetus for change could be a new mandatory training program on mental health for coaches by the Illinois High School Sports Association.

Assistant executive director Matt Troha said in an email that the organization hoped to implement the training as early as the next school year, starting in September 2020.

Photo at the top: Roshawn Russel, athletic director and varsity basketball head coach at St. Rita’s High School, in south Chicago. (Clara Facchetti/MEDILL)