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Mental health screenings help Ichabod student-athletes improve their game

SAAC meeting on mental health

From The Ichabod - Winter 2020

If an athlete sprains an ankle or pulls a hamstring, treatment and frequent monitoring will undoubtedly take place until the injury heals. Mental health hasn’t always received the same kind of attention in the world of sports.

Washburn University’s athletic and psychology departments have been proactive about changing that mindset, teaming up to ensure every student-athlete is able to operate with optimal health, physically as well as mentally.

Brittany Lauritsen, assistant athletic director for compliance, and athletic trainer Kristan Todd approached Dave Provorse, associate professor in psychology, and Crystal Leming, director of Washburn Counseling Services, to ask if graduate students and staff would be willing to conduct mental health screenings on student-athletes who are new to the University. They jumped at the opportunity, and the results have been beneficial for everyone involved.

“I often talk about how the university setting is optimal for doing this kind of thing,” Provorse said. “We have students who are trying to get experience and use clinical skills, so we’re always looking for opportunities to provide those. Any time you can do that and also serve Washburn or the local community at the same time, it just makes perfect sense.”

Freshmen and transfer students who arrive at Washburn go through a physical to determine NCAA eligibility, and in the past two years, a mental health diagnostic screening process was added to the testing for newcomers.

Second-year students in Washburn’s psychology master’s program provide a written questionnaire that establishes a baseline for each student-athlete and allows areas of concern to be addressed from day one.

If there are red flags in any of the 13 mental health domains, such as depression, anxiety or anger management, a more in-depth questionnaire is provided on the specific area. When it’s determined a student-athlete could benefit from counseling, or if they were already receiving help elsewhere before moving to Topeka, they are directed to resources like Washburn Counseling Services or the Psychological Services Clinic, which is affiliated with the psychology master’s program.

An NCAA study released in 2016 showed about 30% of student-athletes were “intractably overwhelmed,” and nearly one fourth of participants reported being exhausted from mental demands of their sport.

“The thing that sets student-athletes apart, I think, is their competitiveness and their drive to perform at a high level. So, if you're already performing at 85% or 90%, maybe seeking out some sort of counseling or psychological services bumps you to 95%.”

Establishing a relationship with the psychology department up front helps make the student-athletes more comfortable reporting any problems down the road.

“It seems more lines of communication between us and the athletic department have opened up a bit,” Provorse said. “I received inquiries from three or four athletes already this fall about broad, off-the-field issues impacting performance, which is probably more than I received in the previous 15 years here.”

Todd said the time she sees student-athletes most in need is after suffering an injury, especially if it’s season-ending, because they’re suddenly forced to adjust to a new schedule and even a loss of their identity.

“You see them go through a grieving process when they’re injured,” she said. “They go through anger and denial and sadness, and that really slows down their healing process of whatever injury they have. So having this connection with the psychology students helps them get through that.”

From the student-athlete perspective, Lauritsen said it’s no surprise mental health screenings have been embraced.

“It's all about performance,” she said. “That's what our student-athletes told us: ‘We want to be focused on performance and being better,’ and I think for that reason it helps to reframe it as, it's not that you're less than, it's that you can be more.”

The proactive approach to mental health care is already paying off. Representatives from the football, volleyball and track teams joined Provorse’s team of graduate students in a presentation to the Student-Athlete Advisory Council in October discussing the progress that can be made from mental health initiatives.

Lauritsen said seeing the screenings develop from an idea she and Todd had a couple of years ago into a department-wide initiative is another encouraging development in the trend of treating mental wellness the same as any other aspect of health.

“This started out as a passion project for Kristan and I,” Lauritsen said. “Sometimes it felt like we were just looking for a light switch in the dark, which is also what mental health feels like sometimes. Now that we've got people who are on board, I think two years down the road, it's going to look a lot different because we're going to have a curriculum that makes sense and put more things in place.”

Marching band member in uniform on cover of The Ichabod winter 2020

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2019-20 winter edition online and look for it in mailboxes in January.

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Topeka, KS 66604
Phone: 785.670.4483
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