Partnership series addresses mental health and performance in student-athletes | Norton Sports Performance Louisville, Ky.

Partnership series addresses mental health and performance in student-athletes

Student-athletes may face unique challenges when it comes to educational, cultural, and psycho-social experiences. A collaboration among Norton Sports Health, the University of Louisville athletics department, KORT physical therapy and Jefferson County Public Schools is helping educate student-athletes, parents, athletic trainers, administrators and coaches about mental health issues faced by student-athletes.

Trends in mental health

Since 2005, there has been a general uptick in psychological distress among adolescents. Two likely reasons, research suggests, are the rise in social media use and the decrease in adequate sleep. Add to this the pressures of performing as a student and an athlete, and you have a potentially concerning mental health situation.

Additionally, alarming research shows the effects of concussion, the most common form of acquired brain injury, on mental health. High school students with a history of sport-related concussions may be at an increased risk for suicide completion, among other distressing mental health related concerns.

The role of coaches and atheletic trainers

For student-athletes, the relationship they have with their coaches and athletic trainers is very important.

“Athletic trainers and coaches are sometimes the athlete’s closest trusted adults,” said Vanessa R. Shannon, Ph.D., director of mental performance for Norton Sports Health and University of Louisville Athletics.

Dr. Shannon is one of the co-facilitators of a series of events that aims to educate athletic trainers, coaches and parents about mental health issues and solutions.

“Coaches and trainers were saying they didn’t feel equipped to effectively handle students’ mental health issues,” Dr. Shannon said.

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So Tad D. Seifert, M.D., neurologist with Norton Neuroscience Institute, and Kate O’Bryan, LCSW, director of mental health with Norton Sports Health and University of Louisville Athletics, joined Dr. Shannon to present three sessions on the subject.

A three-pronged approach

Dr. Shannon’s role with the University of Louisville is to assist student-athletes in reaching their performance goals.

“I step in when a student-athlete struggles with performance concerns, like motivation and confidence,” she said.

Dr. Seifert handles the physical aspects of student athletics, including post-concussion depression. Kate rounds out the group by addressing mental health-related issues, including substance abuse, anxiety and eating disorders.

“All three of us come at a student’s overall mental health from different angles, but we overlap,” Kate said. “If a student-athlete starts struggling in their sport, they are typically struggling in other areas of life as well. If they are depressed in class, that transfers to the field.”

Athletic trainers and coaches are often the first line of defense when it comes to mental health and performance issues.

“We want athletic trainers and coaches, parents, administrators and student-athletes to be aware of issues when they are small,” Kate said. “We try to catch things early.”

The sessions

The first presentation of student-athlete mental health material was to athletic trainers in April 2021. Topics included:

  • Identification and referral of mental health concerns within the student-athlete population
  • Supporting the mental performance needs of student-athletes
  • Working with student-athletes struggling with post-concussion depression

Due to the pandemic and scheduling, the second and third sessions will be combined and are scheduled for Monday, August 9th.

“We got a lot of positive feedback from that first session,” Dr. Shannon said. “The big takeaway for us was that they [the athletic trainers and coaches] want more of this content.”

The hope is to offer these sessions yearly for any Jefferson County Public Schools athletic staff, parents and student-athletes who are interested.

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