Lafayette student-athletes discuss mental health challenges

Lafayettes sports psychologist Julie Amato strives to make sure that the athletes around campus have the mental health support they need. (Photo courtesy of Julie Amato)

Lafayette’s sports psychologist Julie Amato strives to make sure that the athletes around campus have the mental health support they need. (Photo courtesy of Julie Amato)

Elevated suicide rates and reports of mental struggles from collegiate athletes across the nation have put student-athlete mental health in the national spotlight. After the suicide of James Madison softball player Lauren Burnett on April 25, a conversation has emerged surrounding college athletic culture and the detrimental impact of balancing sports, academics and social life.

Over 600 Lafayette students participate in varsity athletics, making up approximately 20 percent of the student body. Athletes on campus dedicate a large portion of time to attending practices and games, including additional training outside of practice. Especially as an NCAA Division I school, Lafayette student-athletes face pressure to both perform athletically and manage rigorous coursework, a responsibility that can take an extreme toll on their mental health. 

“Student-athletes have to worry about missing class, whereas NARPS do not,” softball player Bailey Langford ‘24 said.

“NARP” is a slang acronym for “non-athletic regular person.”

“I’ve had some teachers who do not seem to understand that I don’t make the game schedule and that I don’t want to miss class.” Langford said. “As a result of this, it seems like some teachers favor NARPS over student-athletes.” 

Beyond the sphere of academics, the time commitment associated with being a college athlete often interferes with social life. Many student-athletes feel left out of activities and social gatherings while they are at sports practices or games. 

“You’re friends with people outside of your team, and they have a little bit more freedom,” track and field athlete Lily Dineen ‘24 said. “It’s easy to get caught up in that and wish that you had that.”

An NCAA survey on the study of the student-athlete experience reported that 30% of student-athletes felt “intractably overwhelmed.” According to research funded by the Pacific-12 college athletic conference, more than half of student-athletes reported that their levels of anxiety and stress were over a seven out of 10. 

“Running, in general, is a very mental sport,” Dineen said. “You never really get a break, so it’s hard to be in shape all year round and mentally checked in and into the sport. So I go up and down.” 

Dr. Julie Amato, Lafayette’s sports psychologist, has been a key resource for athletes on campus. She explained that student-athletes are less likely to seek help in contrast to students who do not participate in sports. 

“Athletes are taught to be ‘tough,’ just rub a little dirt on it, you’ll be fine,” Amato wrote in an email. “This kind of toughness is really useful in sports, but there are also times when an athlete can no longer push things aside, push through. We all need to do a better job helping athletes recognize when it is time to ask for help and to help coaches prioritize the mental wellness of our athletes.” 

Lafayette has made strides to improve support systems available for athletes, increasing the amount of time Amato is available to meet with student-athletes who are pursuing resources for mental health. A growing number of coaches are recognizing the pressures that their athletes face, utilizing Amato as a resource for their teams and encouraging athletes to seek guidance when needed. 

“I met with approximately 25% of our student athlete population for individual sessions this past year…and we have a good number of student athletes that also use counseling services, ” Amato wrote. “I believe this is an indicator that the athletic department has done an outstanding job of promoting a culture of help seeking within athletics and reducing the stigma attached to admitting you are struggling.”