We've all heard the stats telling us that one out of every four college students suffers from some sort of mental illness, including depression. For many people; however, depression seems distant, and the stigma surrounding mental health may cause them to deny having it. The University of Michigan Athletic Department is addressing this problem and has recently started a program called Athletes Connected. This initiative brings attention to, and provides support for, student athletes' mental wellnesses.

What Is Athletes Connected?

This promotion of mental health for student athletes has been brought together by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the University of Michigan Depression Center, and the University of Michigan Athletic Department. Initially founded with an Innovations in Research and Practice Grant from the NCAA, Athletes Connected is now providing resources for the support of athletes' psychosocial well-beings.

Athletes Connected is utilizing a trio of elements in the developmental stages of its program. First, they are pursuing the destigmatization of mental heath awareness and help seeking through personalized videos from several athletes. Second, they are providing informational presentations for both athletes and coaches. And, third, they are organizing support groups, specifically designed for the unique burdens many student athletes face.

Ideally, Athletes Connected will be successful enough to use the data it collects at Michigan to expand to its model. It has begun an inclusive initiative to strengthen student athlete mental health, which is applicable to campuses nationwide. 

What does it really mean to be a student athlete?

Much of a student athlete's identity is defined by their sport. They have committed years of their life to the development of their physical skills, which can often be at the expense of their mental health. Often times, it seems like athletic performance is all that matters, with their job, their duty, and their responsibility revolving around winning and breaking records for a larger university's name.

This means that health beyond the physical frequently gets overlooked, especially for athletes. Thus, attention needs to be paid to their minds and emotions, and Athletes Connected is making sure this attention is being paid. 

How do their lives differ from the typical undergraduate?

Though student athletes fit into the category of student, their lifestyles are significantly different from the typical undergraduate. As one of those typical undergraduates, I cannot pretend that I completely understand the inner workings of a student athlete's life, but I attempt to empathize.

For a student like me, day to day routines consist of class time, library grinds, and the attempt to balance extracurriculars with a social life. However, when contrasting this with the day of a student athlete, my schedule seems relatively elementary. Their lives are structured around class, practice, and competitions.

What does this difference mean for their mental health?

This intense time commitment and focus required by college athletics, especially programs with expectations as high as the University of Michigan, means that the likelihood of mental health challenges can be heightened. Though the conversation has already been started, Athletes Connected is a loud voice, helping to change the paradigm around athletic training.

No longer is practice just about physical exercise, but it is also about exercising positive ways of thinking. Just like all other parts of your body, your brain is an organic function. Keeping this in mind, do you think twice about going to physical therapy when you pull a tendon? If not, why would you second guess going to therapy for depression? This is the disparity that Athletes Connected is combating.

How mental and physical health are related

Mental health and physical health work in very similar ways, when one is ignored, inevitably, the other suffers. When mental health is unattended to, fitness levels can decrease, and sickness or injuries are more likely to occur

Athletes Connected is helping student athletes to avoid this by helping them to understand that strengthening their bodies directly corresponds to strengthening their minds, too.

Go blue, go you

College is hard. You're thrust into an independent life and need to transition to living away from home, succeeding in the face of rigorous academic challenges, all while managing new social and financial situations. The University of Michigan is taking steps in the right direction by attempting to tackle these challenges for student athletes, while also offering support for regular students through organizations like Wolverine Support Network. These programs illustrate the changing stigma surrounding mental health, but they cannot provide the transformation itself. 

Each step towards gaining mental health awareness and its stressed importance is an individual movement. It is a revolution made in incremental steps, so take some time to reflect. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and give yourself a reason to smile everyday.