How Illinois and Northwestern are tending to their athletes’ mental health during the pandemic

Eufemia Didonato

CHICAGO — Abbie Wolf remembers being pulled into the film room with her teammates in mid-March for a meeting. Northwestern was preparing for a deep run into the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. But a few minutes later, the team’s dreams of a national championship were shattered. The NCAA announced on […]

CHICAGO — Abbie Wolf remembers being pulled into the film room with her teammates in mid-March for a meeting. Northwestern was preparing for a deep run into the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

But a few minutes later, the team’s dreams of a national championship were shattered. The NCAA announced on March 12 that the tournament — along with all other winter and spring sports — would be canceled because of coronavirus concerns.

For Wolf, the sudden change was jarring. She was just reaching the peak of her basketball career: Against in-state rival Illinois weeks earlier, Wolf had scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds — in a game that happened to fall on her senior day — en route to a Big Ten regular-season title.

Despite the team’s early exit in the Big Ten Tournament, Wolf looked forward to one last ride with her teammates. But as quickly as the NCAA’s announcement made its way across the country, her college basketball career was over.

“I was just heartbroken,” Wolf said. “Just couldn’t believe it. It felt like a foreign thing. It’s become the new normal, but back then it didn’t make sense. Like, why we couldn’t play with fans?

“It’s always been my dream, and the past three years we were building to make the NCAA Tournament. That’s what you want to do as basketball players. So to have that taken away was really hard.”

The last 10 months of the pandemic have thrown college students across the country into uncertainty — and student-athletes were no exception to the challenges.

Their seasons were canceled or delayed and restarted under strict guidelines. Those who have returned to competition have been forced to limit interactions outside of teammates and coaches. And Black athletes had to cope with months of national unrest after George Floyd’s killing in May.

Those factors combined to not only mount pressure on athletic programs, but also take a toll on the mental health of student-athletes.

“This year was definitely challenging,” said Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, Northwestern head team physician and director of sports medicine. Mjaanes said even in March and April, staff began to notice “a lot of them were really struggling.”

According to a May survey from the NCAA, more than one-third of the 37,658 athletes involved described having sleep difficulties, more than one-quarter experienced feeling sadness or a sense of loss and 1 in 12 reported feeling “so depressed it has been difficult to function constantly or most every day.”

Only 55% of female athletes and 60% of male athletes said they knew how to access mental health support despite 80% of the surveyees knowing how to access physical health support.

Diana Brown, a volleyball player at Illinois, said she hadn’t gone long without sports since she was 9.

“I really, really missed just having a schedule (and) getting to touch a volleyball with my teammates,” Brown said. “It was me and the wall for playing volleyball instead of other teammates, so that was honestly just weird.”

Brown enjoyed her time at home and said her family and boyfriend offered support. Wolf spent her time in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where her mother had moved — and she noted that having more free time and a less strict schedule was peculiar.

As many student-athletes transitioned to unfamiliar territory with no sports, the Big Ten made efforts to support them.

Kevin Warren, who took over as Big Ten commissioner in June 2019, took several steps to prioritize student-athletes’ mental health. The conference announced in May that its athletes, coaches and full-time staff of university athletic departments would receive free, unlimited access to Calm, a mental fitness app.

The conference also formed a Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet with representatives from every school.

Illinois and Northwestern have two members on the committees — Randy Ballard and Dr. Tiffany White from Illinois and Dr. Courtney Albinson and Mjaanes from Northwestern.

In Champaign, Illinois launched its mental wellness campaign for student-athletes in May. The goal of the program, Open Doors, was to raise awareness of services offered online, according to Ballard, the university’s associate athletic director for sports medicine and integrated performance.

“Instead of just focusing on destigmatizing mental health care, we’re really trying to create an ecology of help-seeking and supporting each other,” Ballard said. “That’s why we picked that Open Doors terminology — just to help people understand that we’re here, our doors are open and it’s OK not to be OK.”

Ballard said the university has one licensed social worker, two licensed clinical workers, two psychiatrists and a psychologist available for appointments. The staff also participates in team talks, wellness groups and drug and alcohol support, among other services.

Some student-athletes at Illinois and Northwestern also are involved in the Green Bandana Project, a program that brings awareness to those with mental health struggles. After going through training, they place a green bandanna on their backpack as part of a campaign to visibly show their knowledge of mental health resources on campus.

Mjaanes, the director of sports medicine at Northwestern, said he has seen more student-athletes seeking mental health support over his five years at the school — reflecting trends among college students across the country. But as mental health care has become destigmatized within the program, he has seen a rise in the use of Northwestern’s resources.

Since last spring, Illinois and Northwestern offered telemedicine appointments to connect students with resources. Northwestern has four full-time sports psychologists and one sports psychiatrist. One challenge Mjaanes’ staff ran into was licensing laws not allowing mental health providers to offer services across state lines. As a result, the staff provided general guidance and connected athletes with local providers.

Still, Northwestern offers virtual programming to student-athletes about coping during the pandemic. Some of the COVID-19-specific programs Northwestern offered during the spring over Zoom included quarantine and isolation support spaces, resilience and recovery groups for injured athletes — typically done in person — and motivational Mondays during the onset of the pandemic.

Dr. Bettina Frankel, a psychiatrist at the Northwestern counseling center, said she hopes to have more in-person appointments when the pandemic wanes, but she believes technology will provide additional resources in the future.

“The use of technology to connect and create,” Frankel said. “We created gathering spaces … we created a lot of online programming that’s been well-received, and it’s something that we have recorded so they can access at their own convenience.”

Brown said she is appreciative of the work her coaches and athletic department staff have done to provide support systems for her and her teammates. In three years at Illinois, she said she has become more comfortable talking about mental health.

One of the most important takeaways her coaches taught her as she transitioned to college volleyball was that mental health is just as important as physical health. So, Brown said, while progress has been made in how athletes view mental health, teams should devote more time to those issues.

“We lift weights every day,” Brown said. “So if mental health is as important as physical health, then we can build in some time for mental health training.”

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