ISU wristband

Some Idaho State University student-athletes are wearing orange wristbands, which have "#TheBengalPledge" across them. The Bengal Pledge is about putting importance on student-athletes' mental health.

A mental health and body image advocate presented a day of speeches to Idaho State University athletics in January, and enthusiasm about her subject matter erupted.

That day, dozens of ISU student-athletes personally approached Victoria Garrick in between her engagements. The former college student-athlete, who publicly talks about mental health issues and other obstacles she’s faced, delivered a resonating message.

ISU Faculty Athletics Representative Caroline Faure said the professional speaker talked to ISU’s women athletes about body image, educated the school’s coaches about how they can help their athletes with mental health, and talked to all of ISU’s student-athletes and most of ISU’s coaches about the demands on the athletes and mental health.

Her speeches on Jan. 27 were part of ISU’s Mental Health Awareness Week, run by the ISU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). Mental health awareness was also raised during some ISU sporting events that week.

ISU SAAC co-president and Bengals tennis player Melissa Coburn said Garrick’s speech resonated with the athletes and the weeklong event accomplished what it was supposed to.

“It has definitely brought more awareness to the subject and it shows how much there’s a need for more help on campus,” Coburn said. “People are inspired and they want to do something, and people are taking to social media. They’re trying to make a difference.”

The Big Sky Conference picked the subject for its SAAC groups last summer, and the committees took it from there.

ISU Athletic Director Pauline Thiros said mental health is a critical issue.

“It’s every bit as important as their overall health and their physical health,” Thiros said. “Mental health is really an emerging focus across collegiate sports. The student-athletes have a tremendous amount of stress and they encounter mental health challenges at a higher rate than normal student populations, studies show. So it’s something we as athletic departments have to be really vigilant about.”

Faure, a sports science professor, listed what ISU is doing to make its student-athletes’ lives easier.

Every month, there is a “Mind, Body and Sport” seminar for athletes. Topics include mindfulness, depression and anxiety.

In the fall, ISU launched The Bengal Pledge, which encourages athletes “to make the promise that they will prioritize their own mental health and stand by their teammates when they need help,” Faure said.

At the same time, Faure said she started a faculty mentor program, with 15 faculty members spread across 13 ISU teams. She said the mentors have been full-time ISU faculty members for at least three years and showed they were “highly qualified and highly respected faculty.”

The mentors are advocates for the athletes, work with their athletic advisers, teach good study habits, show them how to manage their time and direct them to other resources, according to Faure.

“Our mentors are doing a whole lot to kind of ease the pressure on our student-athletes,” Faure said. “That has been an incredibly successful program and I’m super excited about that.”

Measures like implementing mentors can be helpful in an environment in which athletes face full schedules.

A 2019 NCAA GOALS (Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in college) study found that Division I student-athletes spend a median of more than 30 hours per week on athletic activities alone.

What makes matters worse is that some college athletes will not voice their concerns when they experience a downward spiral.

“Athletes, by their nature, by their training, are told to show that they’re tough, and so mental health for so long has been stigmatized to suggest weakness,” Faure said. “So a lot of these kids are kind of holding it inside and they don’t want to acknowledge that they’re struggling, they don’t want to acknowledge that they’re stressed out or they’re depressed, maybe that they’re suicidal, that they’re lonely, that they’ve got anxiety or they’re just struggling, they’re feeling completely overwhelmed.”

Coburn said that ultimately, the most powerful message Garrick presented was being open about mental health issues. The speaker said she had depression when she was playing volleyball for University of Southern California.

When athletes open up about their mental health struggles, college coaches should have open ears and not be judgmental, Coburn said.

“There can be a lot of fear in telling a coach that you’re not always doing well mentally, that you’re experiencing anxiety because that may affect your playing time,” Coburn said. “Having that open conversation and wiliness to just talk about it and then being OK with that and helping you get those resources without penalizing you is a big deal because I think that’s one of the biggest fears.”

According to the 2019 NCAA GOALS survey, 57 percent of men and 42 percent of women competing in NCAA Division I athletics feel they can talk to their coaches about mental health issues.

Faure said coaches are a source of guidance because they can be as close to a college athlete as a family member, especially considering many do not have family around as they are states or countries away from home.

“These coaches bring them here and have an obligation to support them when they’re here,” Faure said. “And the coaches know that, they recognize it and they embrace that opportunity. So that relationship with the coach is critical, absolutely critical.”

In addition to the ISU athletic administration and counseling and testing center, Faure said ISU’s coaches are also doing a good job in the matter at hand.

Faure also believes adding full-time sports psychologists to ISU’s staff would provide another great resource for student-athletes.

“It’s something that we certainly want to work toward, but the amount of money that’s available to us is not just bottomless,” Faure said. “In an ideal situation, we would have a licensed counselor that is accessible to student-athletes on a regular basis, who can also deal with their sport performance demands, who can relate to the demands of the NCAA and their coaches.”

Some fellow Big Sky Conference schools are employing people in that mold.

California State University, Sacramento, employs a full-time licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist for its athletes. Montana State University has a director of student-athlete wellness, who helps with “mental performance including goal setting, visualization, positive self-talk, and referral for clinical consultation and services,” according to MSU’s athletics website.

Thiros said she sees how sports psychologists could help.

“We see the importance of it. But it’s all a matter of resources,” Thiros said. “We’re one of many, many schools that just don’t yet have it in the budget to provide for an on-staff sports psychologist, but we’re always looking for ways to try to do that.”

Asked if ISU is doing enough now, Thiros said, “you can never do enough.”

“We’re just getting started and we’ll continue to ramp up our efforts every opportunity that we get,” Thiros said. “We feel we need to continue to do more. Absolutely more.”