Student-athletes and the stigma of mental health

Chris Bullock

Ninety percent of student-athletes who are struggling with a mental health concern do not seek help.

This statistic from the website Balance Position,, states a problem that has been a recurring one for decades.

It’s well known that college students go through a lot in their lives, from academic expectations to societal expectations and personal problems. However, the student-athlete has an even greater burden. Student-athletes not only carry their personal problems on their shoulders, they also carry the added expectation on representing their university on a national scale.


Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli Psy. D, a licensed clinical psychologist and sports psychologist at Sacramento State, recognizes that a lot of people believe that athletes are immune to mental issues, when in fact, it is quite the opposite.

“I think there is a misconception that because they are athletes performing at high levels that they are not going to get depression or any other mental illness. When in actuality, mental illness can impact anyone, no matter what your job or title is,” Petruzzelli said. “There are many high functioning people in many different professions that get depression, including athletes. Your job title or profession does not make you immune to the risk factors of getting a mental illness.”

While some athletes do manage to function normally, it is more the exception than the norm. Mark McGushin, who works in the Student Athlete Resource Center as its life skills director, spoke about the many facets of their life that can impact them.

“Obviously, your time demands are extreme; there’s pressure to perform. Many of the student-athletes may have been the top athlete at their school, and now they’re just part of a bigger group, and they’re not up at the top necessarily,” McGushin said. “They have to make adjustments to that. Then they have time demands, class demands and traveling which requires them to miss classes [and] adds to the stress that they have.”

This sentiment was echoed by Lois Mattice, associate athletic director and senior women’s advisor.

“Part of the reason they don’t seek help is the time issue, but the main reason is the stigma attached to it,” Mattice said. “They’ve been raised to be leaders, and they were probably leaders on their high school team; we’re dealing now with NCAA Division I athletes that were the best at their school. So you get ingrained in them that, ‘I can’t let anybody know I have weaknesses.'”


Sydonia Daniels, a senior on the women’s basketball team, can relate to the struggles of having to balance school, athletics and dealing with the emotional baggage that comes from outside influences.

Daniels, who transferred to Sac State from State Fair Community College in Sedalia, MO, originally came from Irvington, N.J., where she dealt with issues that some students couldn’t imagine having to handle.

“I grew up in northern New Jersey, which was considered inner-city, so the environment was totally different [compared to Sacramento],” Daniels said. “The way the environment was shaped out there, it’s a culture shock; it’s basically set up for you to fail.”

The neighborhood that Daniels grew up in was riddled with drugs and violence, which made it difficult to focus on school at times. Luckily, Daniels had support from outside influences, which helped her to where she is now.

“For me, it was a coach on my high school basketball team that taught me, ‘What these people are doing that are older than you, it’s the wrong thing to do,'” Daniels said.

However, that doesn’t mean that her road is easier. Daniels admitted that balancing a double life as a student-athlete can be harder than it looks.

“When you are put in an athletic environment, you actually switch to a workforce aspect, where it’s not like a regular 9-to-5 sit down at a computer job,” Daniels said. “You’re doing various things, and sometimes it goes past five. You have meetings, you have film, you have practices and team functions.”

When it comes to dealing with the stress, it isn’t always easy, and the stigma attached to staying strong can be a burden to not just athletes but for staff as well. Jeffrey Law, a former strength and conditioning coach with the Sac State athletic department, killed himself last August over external life issues ( Law was 25.

Daniels believes that the stigma is problematic and is something that needs to be addressed.

“All coaches always teach mental toughness, and you realize as you go on that toughness and effort will always win. But at the end of the day, we’re all human,” Daniels said. “Something will happen to us, whether it be extreme or mild, somebody will always go through adversity. And sometimes, as an athlete, you don’t always know how to cope with it or tell someone you’re hurting, because you don’t want to come off as weak.”


According to the 2013 National College Heath Assessment data (Sac State had a subsample of 211 varsity athletes), Sac State student-athletes actually showed much lower rates of mental health concerns (including feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, exhausted, lonely, depressed, anxiety, etc.) than the overall student population, a number that Petruzzelli sees as encouraging.

“It was only until recently where elite and professional athletes are openly discussing that they struggled with mental health issues while performing in sport,” Petruzzelli said. “However, it is my hope that every single student-athlete on campus know that there is help for them, it’s okay to get help and know where they can help. Student Health and Counseling Services has many providers that are ready to help them get what they need and back on track should they find themselves struggling.”

When Law died, Mattice worked with coaches and students to cope with the loss. Now, she sees the tragedy as a chance to learn and give student-athletes some insight as to why it is okay to seek help.

“Hopefully his [Law’s] passing wasn’t in vain, that students will recognize he was in crisis and didn’t reach out,” Mattice said. “It will teach them a lesson to reach out and get the help they need before they reach that point in their life.”

Daniels, who has experience dealing with tragedy, said that if she could give any advice, she would recommend that people seek help as soon as they recognize there’s an issue.

“Although it may seem like you may come off as weak or any adjective you want to use, I still encourage people to talk with somebody they trust,” Daniels said. “That’s what people need, is someone to listen, not judge them, not worry about what they’re going to say or how they’ll treat them. Because at the end of the day, you’ll never know what someone is going through, and you’ll never know how you’ll impact someone’s life.”