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The Journal Gazette

  • Rosado

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 1:00 am

Student athletes deserve mental health care access

Stephanie Rosado

Stephanie Rosado, a former college athlete, is a Fort Wayne resident and a candidate for a master's in social work at the University of Southern California.

Larry Nassar became a household name because he sexually abused nearly 200 women and girls – all under the guise of caring for their sports medicine needs.

When Nassar, USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University, heard his sentence of 175 years in prison, there were cheers in the courtroom.

What we need now are cheerleaders for mandating mental health services for all sports teams on every college campus in America.

What Nassar perpetrated was evil, and he's not the only kind of risk student-athletes face on American campuses, including every one of Indiana's more than 60 college and university campuses.

All college athletes have heard it: “Must be nice, living the good life.”

What people don't see is the daily schedule: 5 a.m. wake-up (that's if you don't plan on making a “real” breakfast); 6 a.m. weightlifting (grueling conditioning sessions); shower at 8:30 a.m. and rush to class while scarfing down a banana because you have to be sitting in class by 9 a.m. before coaches walk by to make sure you are present.

After hours of sitting in class, there's practice: a 21/2 hour session of running, jumping and getting yelled at that leaves you with an empty tank – mentally and physically.

Now, to rush home and get dinner ready. By the time dinner is over and the kitchen's clean, and attempts are made to organize other aspects of life, it's almost 9 p.m.

Then comes the all too familiar “I haven't even studied yet.” A short time later, it's dangerously too soon to wake up and do it all over again. I lived that life at IPFW.

These scenarios make student-athletes vulnerable to abuse.

The Journal of Sports Health reported that, from 2003-12, there were 35 suicides from a review of 477 NCAA athlete deaths. Suicides represented 7.3 percent of all causes of death among NCAA athletes.

There are 347 Division I schools in the country. In 2014, ESPN noted that fewer than 25 Division I athletic departments have a full-time licensed mental health professional on staff.

Research has proven that access to a mental health professional can reduce rates of suicide, depression and other adverse coping strategies, as well as significantly increase the likelihood that sexual abuse victims will reveal what they have endured. Mental health practices have also been linked to improved athletic and academic performance.

How do we stop the abuse? The goal is to raise awareness; a goal that has already been taken on by organizations such as the Alliance of Social Workers in Sports. The alliance is geared toward integrating social work practice into all aspects of sports and recreation for the betterment of communities and individuals.

Social workers are among the largest group of professional mental health service providers in the country, and they could greatly benefit the athletic community.

Furthermore, since the NCAA reports more than $1 billion in revenue in 2017, reaping the benefits of the abilities of its student-athletes, it could invest in those same unpaid and strenuously worked young adults. Athletes are in need of the advocacy that social workers and mental health professionals provide.

I think it would be an understatement to say that all athletes deserve to have a designated licensed mental health professional available to them while participating in any athletic league, at any level.

All college athletic programs should be required to have at least one licensed mental health professional who is part of the staff, who performs routine mental health assessments on every athlete, and who is accessible by athletes who want to seek additional assistance. We need a brave legislator to author a bill that addresses this proposal in order to ensure a safe student body and campus for all.

We have acted in the moment by putting Nassar behind bars so he can't hurt anyone anymore. But we can also be proactive by establishing great policy that protects our college athletes, including all of those in Indiana.