Sports and Sexual Violence

Mental Health And Stigma

Mental health of student-athletes
The NCAA recognizes mental health as an important dimension of health, and has developed recommendations for athletic departments and others who interact with student-athletes (e.g., academic advisors) to create an environment that supports wellness and provides resources, including referrals to mental health services (5). This type of support was viewed as critically important to our study participants. Both athletes and their coaches expressed strong concerns about what they perceived to be a sharp rise in mental health problems among athletes, namely anxiety and depression, related to the stressors described above. Research from other U.S. campuses suggests one quarter of NCAA student-athletes are living with depression, with female athletes being more negatively affected than male athletes (6).

Striving to achieve “mental strength” and avoid stigma
Despite strong narratives about debilitating effects of depression and anxiety, most of the student-athletes we interviewed were conflicted about seeking treatment for mental health issues for fear of being perceived as “weak.” Similar sentiments were expressed about identifying as a sexual violence survivor or seeking violence-related services. Stigma was noted as the main reason student-athletes decided not to seek assistance for, or disclose experiences of mental health issues or sexual violence.

Athletes felt an indisputable need to develop and display “mental strength,” especially in front of their coaches. Common belief was that an athlete’s level of success in their sport and athletic career was in direct proportion to their level of mental strength.

“There is stigma around being the victim in any situation, whether it’s sexual assault or anything else. I think this is especially so, being an athlete. You don’t necessarily want to be portrayed as being weak. There’s talk of mental strength and the mental part of being an athlete. I think that’s a huge part of what is encouraged of us, or voiced to us. So I think it’s like, ‘oh this [referring to being a victim of sexual assault] is just another way for me to NOT be mentally stronger.’ I think it kind of also plays into the mental illness stigma and how you’re kind of looked down upon… if you come out as being vulnerable and weak, as an athlete.”

[Female Athlete]

Participants in our study reported that – on top of other stressors – sexual violence and relationship abuse were significant contributors to mental health problems in student-athletes. These anecdotes align with a large body of literature that has documented associations between sexual violence and multiple, negative short- and long-term mental health outcomes including flashbacks of the assault, feelings of shame, isolation, shock, confusion, and guilt. Additionally, survivors of sexual violence have been found to be significantly more likely to report depression, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), substance use problems, eating disorders and anxiety, relative to people who have not experienced sexual violence (7).

At times, the image of the team and athletic program were more highly valued than a student’s safety and welfare.

Some female athletes felt the high-profile image of Division I or II players and the tight-knit athletic department community impeded their ability to self-protect from harm and discrimination. This was particularly the case in light of new Title IX rules on college campuses, allowing accused perpetrators to cross-examine the victim during live hearings. Some women interpreted this policy change (precluding a victim’s ability to remain anonymous) as a major gap in supporting survivors on college campuses – particularly student-athlete survivors who are assaulted by another student-athlete.

“This past month, someone on our team was assaulted by another athlete. She’s not reporting it, since he’s a part of the athletic department. If we say his name, then Title IX (because the rule just changed) would not put it under Title IX as his case. It would go under her name. She (the assault victim) sent out a text to make sure the case was in his name. Because if it gets out that she reported him, he will be notified through the athletic department and there would be charges – so he’d know which team it came from. They would know who it was and it would be really scary for her. They would know specifically who she was. It would harm her more than it would harm him.”

[Female Athlete]

5. NCAA and Sport Science Institute. 2017. Mental Health Best Practices: Inter-Association Consensus Document: Best Practices for Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness (Mental Health Best Practices). df
6. Wolanin, A., Hong, E., Marks, D., Panchoo, K., & Gross, M. (2016). Prevalence of clinically elevated depressive symptoms in college athletes and differences by gender and sport. Br J Sports Med;50(3):167-71. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-095756.3.
7. World Health Organization. Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Geneva: WHO; 2013.

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