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Student athletes have an easier time accessing mental health care on campus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Studies show that more college students were struggling with mental health even before the pandemic, and schools across the country say they're struggling to keep up with demand for services. But as Alisa Roth tells us, one group of students has an easier time getting mental health care on campus - student athletes. A warning that this story mentions suicide.

ALISA ROTH, BYLINE: All A'Shon Riggins wanted to do when he got to Indiana University was play football.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: O'Connor, late over the middle - incomplete.

ROTH: So he didn't understand why he wasn't happy even when he played well and his team won.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Riggins on the cover.

A'SHON RIGGINS: I really didn't know what was going on at the time of - like, aware of my body, my mental health or anything like that.

ROTH: He says that as a man who's Black and who plays football, mental health was not something he ever talked about.

RIGGINS: I've always heard, you know, if you go see sports psychologists, like, oh, you're crazy.

ROTH: During his junior year, though, he was diagnosed with anxiety and depression after he tried to end his own life. As a football player, Riggins could see a counselor in the athletic department right away, for as many sessions as he needed and at no cost. Same is true for all student athletes at IU. Athletes at more and more schools now have quicker, easier access to mental health care. The question is whether that's fair to their classmates who don't play sports. Robin Scholefield is in charge of mental health for the athletic department at the University of Southern California. She says it's no different than athletics hiring nutritionists or tutors.

ROBIN SCHOLEFIELD: It's labor-intensive with people who are highly educated, and it's expensive. So it's a values-based decision. It's not a financial decision.

ROTH: Except that some schools can't afford to make that values-based decision, even for their athletes. Tim Schoonveld is athletic director of Hope College, a Division III school in Michigan.

TIM SCHOONVELD: We're trying to use the resources kind of that we have as best we can to be able to, like, hope that, like, nobody's falling through the cracks.

ROTH: Which right now, at Hope, mostly means informal counseling by trainers and coaches who get some guidance from the school's mental health center. Rachel Cambron is an English major at Indiana University who doesn't play sports. Campus mental health services said she could either see a therapist in town, where there was a nine-month wait, or she could see one on campus, but only once a month, which is what she ended up doing.

RACHEL CAMBRON: I was going to take the resources given to me, but it wasn't really what I needed at the time.

ROTH: Student athletes face the same mental health struggles as regular students and some athletic-specific ones, too - things like the stress of leading very public lives and performance anxiety. At campus counseling centers overwhelmed by student demand, there are often limits on how many sessions a student can have and long delays to get an appointment. At IU and other schools, the caseloads in the regular campus counseling center are generally much higher than in the athletic department because each counselor in the campus mental health center is responsible for so many more students. Troy Moles runs the athletic counseling program at IU.

TROY MOLES: Part of the spirit behind athletics trying to get some full-time staff members, you know, working within athletics - so, you know, we could get folks in quicker, faster, easier, that kind of stuff.

ROTH: Moles says there's no question it's good for the athletes, since it also lets them squeeze mental health care into their busy schedules and helps fight stigma. The NCAA agrees. It's been pushing schools to take care of student athletes' brains along with their bodies. And it's not just athletics departments. Veterinary schools, engineering programs and others have also begun embedding counselors to make sure their students have easy access to mental health care. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Roth.

SHAPIRO: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.