COLUMN: It's time to talk about college athletes' mental health


DALLAS, TEXAS: Angel Reese #10 of the LSU Lady Tigers reacts towards Caitlin Clark #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the fourth quarter during the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament championship game at American Airlines Center on April 02, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Maddie Meyer | Getty Images

In 2015, University of Michigan football had the chance to seal the win against rival Michigan State University with less than 10 seconds remaining in the matchup. All Michigan punter Blake O’Neill had to do was get off a clean punt. 

However, O’Neill ended up fumbling the snap, leading to an MSU touchdown and the Spartans coming out victorious. O’Neill’s mistake not only cost the Wolverines the game, but it led to an uproar from fans. The Michigan punter started to receive death threats on social media, including people telling him to “chug bleach.” 

This was one of the first prime examples of how public criticism can lead to more pressure and hardships for student athletes. During the 2023 college football season, Colorado State defensive back Henry Blackburn received death threats, along with his family, after an illegal hit against Colorado star Travis Hunter. 

The pressure these athletes feel to perform for others can lead to mental health issues. 

According to the National Library of Medicine, around 22% of student athletes were at risk of depression, while 12.5% were at risk for anxiety. 

We have seen an overall push in recent years for more of a focus on mental health and taking care of ourselves. However, a lot of time in sports, athletes are taught to suppress those feelings and keep pushing. This can be for a variety of reasons, including fear of losing playing time, pressure to perform well or fear of criticism. 

Recently, Louisiana State University women’s basketball star Angel Reese was absent from the Tigers’ lineup for four games. Reese is a prominent figure in the women’s basketball world, leading her team to a national championship in the 2022-23 season.

Reese has received a lot of attention, along with criticism, for the way that she plays the game, and also from men who can’t realize how great these women athletes are. The four-game break led to many discussions, including people mentioning her grades and intelligence, while also questioning her dedication to the game. 

However, that wasn’t the case, according to Reese. Instead when she returned, Reese said she took the break for her mental health, and if she wasn’t taking good care of herself, she couldn’t be a good teammate to the people around her. 

“I want people to realize that I’m not just an athlete,” Reese said in a press conference. “I’m a human. I go through things.”

Reese is one of the first college athletes to bring up a valuable lesson: These players are not just props that you can use for your entertainment. They are human beings. 

Professional athletes have started the conversation, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka, who both made headlines for taking breaks from their respective sports due to mental health reasons. However, I don’t see the same conversations happening at the collegiate level. 

The conversation surrounding college players prioritizing their well being over performance concerns is long past overdue. 

The fact that when Reese took her break from the game, the first conclusion people came up with is questioning her love for the sport shows that work needs to be done when having conversations about mental health. 

It’s time to normalize what Reese did. We need to have less judgment of these athletes, and instead encourage them to take care of themselves. Because oftentimes when players prioritize getting better mentally, they can improve their game. 

I have often heard the phrase, “mental health is health,” and I think that should stay true in athletics. Sometimes when players aren’t meeting their full potential, there is nothing physically wrong with them, they are just in their head about their performance. 

It is now more important than ever that we start talking about the pressure and mental health issues athletes face because of the rise of social media. One mistake can lead to people flooding these young athletes’ comment sections. This can have detrimental effects on how athletes feel about themselves and their talents as an athlete. 

I understand that sports means a lot to people, and everyone wants their teams to succeed. I was having a panic attack when Michigan played Alabama in the 2024 Rose Bowl, so I get it. 

However, these college athletes who are providing you with the entertainment of sports are still growing up, still learning and will make mistakes like any other human being. Criticizing them through social media or making them feel like their mental health isn’t important won’t solve anything.