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Exploration of athletic department’s mental health awareness efforts

November 12, 2021

Discussion about and attention to mental health have increased significantly among college students in recent years. This uptick has created conversations at the College addressing unique mental health concerns for student-athletes who juggle practices and competitions in addition to their academic and social responsibilities.

“[Athletes] consistently comprise a significant portion of the clinical caseloads for each of our counselors,” Director of Counseling and Wellness Services Roland Mendiola wrote in an email to the Orient. “These athletes represent the full range of Bowdoin teams and present with a whole host of mental health issues.”

Mendiola used his experience at Bowdoin to propose a theory as to why students who are also athletes may struggle with their mental health in unique ways, emphasizing that athletic success and peak physical performance are often valued over mental well-being and proper time management.

“Some of the issues seemingly present for many athletes seeking out mental health treatment include having an extraordinarily rigorous and demanding schedule, the expectation and pressure to maintain a certain kind of social life and the stress of having to navigate a sports culture that continues to emphasize a certain level of perfectionism and social comparison and competitiveness,” Mendiola wrote.

Varsity squash player Skyler Spaulding ’24 echoed Mendiola’s thoughts.

“There’s a big fear of putting your mental health first because it involves missing practices and workouts,” Spaulding said. “There’s this culture where taking time for yourself is equated to a weakness because there’s a lot of competition involved [with athletics] and you want to seem strong in every facet. When you take a day off, you feel guilty about it.”

The College has taken steps in recent years to provide its athletes with a wealth of targeted wellness resources.

Mendiola discussed his department’s involvement with the College’s athletic teams, crediting much of it to former Director of Counseling and Wellness Services Bernie Hershberger, who retired last July after a 24-year counseling career at Bowdoin.

“[Hershberger], based on his own background and training, was significantly involved in clinical consultation with various athletic teams, especially regarding the psychology behind performance and the use of hypnosis, mindfulness and visualization to aid in performance,” Mendiola wrote. “With his influence, I observed that involvement shift [in the department], especially as it seemed to more widely utilize the services of an external sports psychologist as well as various avenues for mindfulness training.”

The athletic department took its own steps to encourage athletes to recognize and discuss their emotional experiences. In collaboration with a faculty committee of College representatives, the department founded the Leadership and Empowerment through Athletic Principles (LEAP) initiative in 2016.

The LEAP initiative strives to give athletes access to sports psychology resources in Portland and introduce them to renowned guest speakers from a variety of athletic and personal backgrounds to discuss their personal relationships with mental health.

“By providing sports-related wellness services, we hope to demystify the engagement of athletes with their mental health and well-being,” Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan said. “We’re trying to raise awareness for mental well-being in the context of athletics and how that relates to the lives we all live.”

Some athletes, however, noted that they have felt they did not have adequate space to address their mental health in recent weeks.

“The [field hockey team] had playoffs last weekend, and despite the recent tragic events on campus, we still find it hard to balance out mental health and athletic expectations because we have not been given time off from practices,” field hockey player Jill Cloonan ’24 said. “I feel like if I ask for a break in such a competitive atmosphere, I will somehow let down my team, and it will seem like I don’t care.”

Cloonan explained that Bowdoin’s competitive athletic culture makes it difficult for teams to freely discuss the underlying mental aspects of athletics.

“The mental health discussions that we have on our team feel somewhat forced. We only have them when [something bad] happens. Most of the time it is retroactive rather than proactive,” Cloonan said. “During our mental health check ins, we just rate how we’re doing mentally and physically on a scale of 1 to 10 and then move on.”

Some varsity athletes feel the sacrifices necessary to achieve a high level of athletic success are not worth the personal costs.

“The transition [from high school to college athletics] is really hard because it’s such a huge time commitment. It’s like a full time job,” Spaulding said. “You come to the realization that you won’t be a professional athlete, but because of your sport, you don’t necessarily have enough time to invest in figuring out what you’re truly passionate about.”

The athletic department is dedicated to making changes to more adequately support its athletes.

“Anybody associated with collegiate athletics wants their athletes to have their athletic experiences in the best mental position possible to be successful, so it’s in the best interest of all of us to devote time, energy and resources to this topic,” Ryan said.

Ryan is optimistic about using the LEAP initiative to spark future mental health conversations at the College.

“We have plans to bring Joanne Palumbo-McCallie, the former women’s head basketball coach at Duke, to campus this spring,” Ryan said. “She recently wrote a book about her own well-being journey and [her] struggle with bipolar disorder. We hope she will provide workshops with our coaches, community talks and small group conversations [with athletes].”

Cloonan, on the other hand, is hesitant about the department’s progress.

“I don’t envision that attention to [mental health] in the athletic department will change anytime soon,” Cloonan said. “Following the tragic events of two weeks ago, it already seems like people both inside and outside of athletic teams are falling back into the same routine like nothing happened.”


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