By Dr. John Huang
Most Kentucky fans have had enough of 2020. Take a worldwide pandemic, mix in some social injustice, sprinkle in an unhealthy portion of partisan presidential politics and an ungodly number of celebrity deaths—and you’ve got the recipe for a downer of a year. During stressful times, sports has always served as a soothing escape from the rigors of life. It’s something we all look forward to after a hard day at the office. If Kentucky fans don’t have any football or basketball games this fall, there’s really no reason to even get out of bed.
Imagine if you’re a college student athlete. You’re entering into adulthood—possibly the most formative and exciting years of your young life. And yet, the country looks like it’s going to hell in a handbasket. Factors such as social isolation, university closures, and financial worries play havoc with your psyche. The uncertainty of your future is enough to make you lose your mind. It’s a problem far worse than a broken bone or a torn ACL, but far more prevalent, widespread, and devastating than any on-the-field injury.
Statistics indicate that the mental health of young adults has been rapidly deteriorating during the ongoing Covid pandemic. The incidence of depression, bipolar illnesses, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicides has been skyrocketing. In a recent survey of young adults aged 18-24, a whopping 63% reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, 25% reported starting or increasing use of substances, and 25% reported seriously considering suicide in the past 30 days.
“This thing is hard,” admitted Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari on a recent Zoom press conference. “I’m more concerned with mental health than anything else because [the players] know to wear the mask and the gloves and stay away and social distance and they know they hear what parties are doing and all this. But when you’re locked in a room for 18 hours a day, my concern is, all right, what do we do with these guys every other day?”
Coach Cal is creative. I’m sure he’ll find ways to keep his players entertained. Even though they’re coddled and catered to like blue-blooded royalty—with cooks, counselors, and concierge service at their every beck and call—that doesn’t make them any less prone to the ravages of mental health disorders.
But what about football? Mark Stoops’ troops present a decidedly more representative sample of what might be considered a normal student-athlete. I asked him specifically about the safeguards in place to make sure the mental health of his players is being properly addressed and protected.
“We are constantly— really 24/7—counseling and monitoring and spending time with our players,” Stoops assured me. “That doesn’t mean that we know exactly what’s going on in every young man’s head or in their life. But I can promise you, we talk to them often.”
The destructive effects of mental health disorders are way too prevalent in American society. Even on college campuses, there remains a stigma associated with these relentless diseases of the mind. It’s often hard for regular students to admit that they need help. It has to be even harder for athletes, who feel that pressing need to always excel and put on a strong outer veneer. Support programs are vital to identify individuals desperate for help, but who are hesitant to cry out.
“Part of our leadership development program is that we spend a lot of time with our players talking about things other than football,” Stoops continued. “With that being said, hopefully during those conversations and us investing in them outside of football, we’ll have a good feel and know whether there are problems going on. Once again, we’re no mind readers and we’re not perfect, but we do invest a lot of time. There are a lot of people within our organization that spend time with these young men.”
That’s reassuring to know that the people in charge are fully aware of the magnitude of the mental health crisis. An athlete’s well-being is much more significant than his performance on the football field. But in terms of wins and losses, a healthy mind is every bit as important as a repaired ACL.