Unpacking the discussion surrounding mental wellness within Drexel Athletics | The Triangle
SJN Grant

Unpacking the discussion surrounding mental wellness within Drexel Athletics

Photo by Evie Touring | The Triangle

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which highlights the importance of destigmatizing the prevalent issue of mental health. Mental health concerns surrounding student-athletes have moved to the forefront of many clinical discussions. Collegiate athletes face the challenges of both the academic and athletic worlds, which often leads to mental health struggles for student-athletes. Clinical research on the topic of college athletes’ mental health has been lacking, creating a significant gap in both the knowledge and acceptance of the mental health struggles that student-athletes can face. Despite this, through our research at The Triangle, it is evident that there are both problems surrounding student-athletes’ struggles with mental health, as well as solutions being implemented in order to address these problems. 

 In a study performed by the Duke University College of Arts and Sciences, it was found that, generally, one third of all college students will experience mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety. Of this population, about 30 percent will seek professional help. Among student-athletes, however, only 10 percent will seek professional help. In the NCAA’s 2023 student-athlete well-being report, they reported student-athletes experienced mental health struggles at a rate similar to that of the general public. However, the NCAA pointed out that the 2023 rate was one-and-a-half to two times higher than the 2019 rate. Universities such as Drexel have a need for infrastructure that assists all students with mental health struggles. This infrastructure is also critically important for student-athletes as that can be a bridge to address the gap that exists in student-athletes seeking out help for their mental health struggles. 

For student-athletes, performance is important in academics as well as competition. Finding and maintaining the balance between the two is a crucial part in a student-athlete’s life. “It’s all a balance beam for me,” said Aldercy Bui, a student-athlete on Drexel’s swim team: “There is a certain way that sports, exercise, and the camaraderie of being on a team helps a lot with powering through what I’m struggling with. It’s really all about balance and maintaining that kind of balance because where the scale tips you can resource a different kind of avenue to help you power through it.”

Bui added that, “It’s all about having a really good mindset, and knowing that you will feel it now but you know you won’t feel it later. Nothing is stagnant forever.” Bui is also the communications chair for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which acts as a channel of communication from student-athletes to administrators. “It’s an organization that’s structured to give back,” says Bui. SAAC has the support of other student-led organizations working to raise awareness for student-athlete’s mental health, such as Morgan’s Message. “They are very proactive, they work right alongside SAAC,” Bui commented. “They are a big part of student-athlete mental health awareness and a resource for that.” 

Outside of this, Drexel has taken more steps to provide support for student-athletes’ mental health. Bui noted that there are “open resources, but I just think encouraging student-athletes to ask for help and act on it is another issue because it’s so easy to see an email or see a flier and be like ‘okay, whatever’ but whenever you truly need it, you know it’s in the back of your head, you’re like ‘oh maybe I should look into that.’ But it is more of a sense of urgency for the student-athletes to use these resources. That is another issue. But at least we have those resources that are openly and widely available. But the next piece of the puzzle…would be to actually use them.” Playing collegiate sports ingrains a mental toughness in student-athletes that can serve as an asset in the games, but can be an impediment when asking for the help needed in personal life. Fortunately, there has been a greater push for mental health awareness and providing the resources to combat issues regarding mental health. 

One such resource for student-athletes is Dr. Zachary Hankle, the athletics-embedded clinical psychologist for Drexel. Hankle is in charge of “not only sports performance type pieces, but all mental health needs as well.” Hankle’s role at Drexel is to be versatile to address the unique needs of each individual, meaning his work can take the form of “Groups and workshops for things like a life after sports support group.”

“I am looking into doing an injury rehabilitation type of process group for individuals who may be having struggles emotionally managing and recovering from an injury. I am also working on different screening assessments for new athletes, or pre and midseason assessments, so that we can maybe pick up when someone might be struggling emotionally so we can be more preventative rather than reactive to an individual’s mental health needs.” 

Hankle knows how crucial maintaining balance is, especially while juggling all the tasks students, especially student-athletes, have. “It’s hard enough being a Drexel student with co- op and the quarter system. It’s incredibly stressful. I’m very impressed with Drexel students and their ability to balance that and be resourceful. And student-athletes on top of that too, they have practices and games and training as well and then you go to co-op and class. And so finding that balance, and also finding time to prioritize your emotional health and self care is something that is difficult.”   

Mental Health Awareness Month has been a great way to highlight the issues regarding mental health. Finding solutions to address the issues is the next step in this process. “I think the biggest thing that I found is that people are trying to increase their knowledge base of different mental health initiatives by really trying to listen to the student-athletes,” said Dr. Hankle. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to issues involving mental health, but there are some simple steps that everyone can initially take to stay on top of one’s mental health. “I think a very simple way of putting this is taking a moment to prioritize your mental health,” Dr. Hankle continued, “Whether that is every day or an extended period of time during the week but taking some time to really think about ‘Ok what do I need at this moment? How can I be more in the present? How can I really prioritize my emotional needs at this moment?’” 

In regards to the disparity between student-athletes’ and other students’ propensity to seek counseling for their mental health struggles, Dr. Hankle said the first step towards bridging the gap is simply being accessible. “If I get to know someone from being at practice and talking to coaches and having small talk, it just normalizes like, ‘Oh you can talk to me.’ I’m not this intimidating person. I wear fun socks and striped sweaters to try and break down those walls that this person is not a threatening person. Making my space an environment where individuals can come in and talk about exactly what they want to talk about in that moment.” 

As light is continually shed on the issues surrounding mental health, it is important to address the gap that student-athletes face in their discussions facing problems with mental health. 

Balance is something that is crucial, yet hard to grasp, in any student’s life. For student-athletes, maintaining both a rigorous academic curriculum and the competitive world of sports is a difficult challenge faced everyday. Though Drexel supplies many resources that help make the burden more bearable, the next step moving forward is to spread awareness of these resources provided for student-athletes and destigmatize the belief that a “tough mentality” is the only option.