Penalties and Prozac: The importance of Mental Health in Riverside Athletics

By Ryan Weaver and Benjamin Meglin

On the outside, sports fans often believe athletes have the easiest and best lives. Social media is a big reason why. NFL Players like Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Andre Dillard both frequently posted photos and videos of their expensive vehicles and themselves in fancy clothing. 

Both athletes, however, also took breaks from social media to focus on their mental health. Mayfield made his decision to leave social media back in January. He said that he will be “getting off of social media for the foreseeable future.” and that he’s “gotta do what’s best to focus on me, my family, and my loved ones.” Dillard also announced his decision to leave social media in June of 2021.

Their breaks from social media were reminders that, for many athletes, the glamour and fame  comes with a toll on their mental health. 

Professionals aren’t the only ones impacted by this issue. According to a 2014 study conducted by the NCAA, 85 percent of certified athletic trainers believe that anxiety disorders are currently a major issue on their campus. 

“While everybody experiences some of these symptoms from time to time, student-athletes with anxiety disorders experience these symptoms frequently and severely enough to negatively affect their ability to function to their potential,” said Scott Goldman, director of clinical and sport psychology for the University of Arizona’s athletic department, in response to the NCAA study. “To best help someone with an anxiety disorder, it is recommended that the provider know the emotional construct of anxiety and understand basic treatments, interventions and referrals.”.

Many high school athletes report struggling with their mental health, too, especially during and after the pandemic. In a Pirates’ Hook story published last semester by Piper Winton, Riverside student athletes and coaches described the factors that contribute to a growing issue. 

Goldman says the most common diagnoses of student athletes are the development of anxiety disorders and depression. 

Common forms

Anxiety disorders are, as defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is “a mental health disorder that is characterized by feelings of fear, worry, and anxiety that prohibit you from carrying out daily activities.” This is a generalized term as there are many disorders that fall under the term “Anxiety Disorder,” including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. 

They are common in adolescense, as one in three children in the United States meet the criteria for having an anxiety disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Anxiety disorders can be treated many different ways, such as with self-care, therapies, and medications. With therapy being the most common type of treatment for those sufferring with Anxiety Disorder.

Depression is another common mental health disorder found in student-athletes. By definition it is a disorder that is characterized by a persistant depressive mood and loss of interest in activities that lead to an impairment of completing and participating in daily life, according to the CDC. 

Unlike Anxiety Disorders, the term depression is not a generalized term. It affects behavioral, emotional, physical, mental health. The symptoms of depression include extended periods of sadness, loss of interest, changes in sleep schedule, change of apetite, low self-esteem, and can lead to thoughts of suicide according to the APA. 

Treatments for depression are similar to Anxiety Disorders. Therapy and medication can both help. There is also a procedure called “Electroconvulsive Therapy,” a procedure that is conducted under general anesthsia and sends small electric currents through the brain to cause a brief seizure. This procedure is only conducted in cases of severe depression in an attempt to reverse the symptoms.

DPS Programs

Durham Public Schools provides the same resources to student athletes as all other students. The primary resource is their school’s guidance counselors. 

“Students would and should access their school counselor,” said DPS athletic director David Hackney. “The school counselor will refer them for mental health services with our provider.”

Riverside counselors did not respond to multiple interview requests or emails from The Pirates’ Hook. 

The district offers additional mental health support in the form of co-located mental health programs, Structured Psychotherapy for Acolescents Responding to Chronic Stress (SPARCS) and Inner Explorer. 

“SPARCS is a 16 week group facilitated by trained DPS staff,” said Beatrice Laney, a social worker who is part of the DPS school-based mental health services department, in an email to The Pirates’ Hook. “The program is a 16 week group facilitated by year long trained DPS staff.”

Inner Explorer is a mindfulness based platform for students. According to its website, Inner Explorer is an online mindfulness platform designed to support mental health and well-being through Mindfulness-Based Social Emotional Learning (MBSEL). 

Both programs require the consent of the student’s parents to take part in these programs if they are under the age of 18 years old.

To navigate additional stress that student athletes may experience, Laney recommended players and coaches buld wellness exercises into their daily routines. 

“Athletes and coaches can incorporate mindfulness at the beginning and/or end of practices,” she wrote in an email. “In addition, I or one of our mental health counselors can facilitate a brain science training for a team as requested.” 

Accessibility Issues

Kisha Bardonille, Riverside’s Social Worker, was participating in the SPARCS training program during the 2019-20 school year until it was halted in March due to the pandemic. 

 “[SPARCS] is psychoeduational,” Bardonille said. “It is helping teams respond to chronic stress, and trauma. And it was a very evidence based program. Duke University was doing the training for us.” 

Bardonille has since not been able to complete her training. 

“It became harder to get folks to log into their classes when we went out in March 2020. So trying to get a group that we used to provide food for and send announcements/reminders,” she said. “The district was not willing to pay me to finish because of the requirement to start from scratch,”she said. 

Bardonille also mentioned that there is no other administrator or staff member in the building who is trained with SPARCS or even has hands-on experience with the program.

“I am sad, because there’s no one else trained in the building,” she said. 

In a follow up email, Laney confirmed that Riverside is not utilizing SPARCS due to the lack of trained personnel on campus. In the same breath, she mentioned that there are multiple trained staff members up at the district level.

Additionally, Inner Explorer will not be available as a free program for DPS schools until the end of the summer. And Laney confirmed that she has only completed district-led brain trainings with elementary and middle school students.

Bardonille believes the weekly therapuetic services Riverside provides for all students remain effective, but she doesn’t know when or if additional resources will be available. 

“I am unsure of the future for mental services here at Riverside.” she said. 

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