Athletes Connected Creating Change and Constantly Evolving

Have you ever struggled to find the motivation to do the things you love? Have you ever found yourself withdrawing from social contact? Worrying excessively?

Many of us have. These are some of the signs and symptoms that signal you may need to talk to someone that can provide you with support.

When you feel shoulder pain during a training session most often you will seek treatment from a doctor or a physiotherapist. When people, especially athletes, experience the feelings described above many are reluctant to seek out treatment for their mental wellness in the same way they would their physical health.

In a research study conducted in 2014 it was found that intercollegiate athletes who suffered from depression and anxiety are far less likely to utilize mental health services compared to the general student population.

Athletes Connected, a mental wellness program at the University of Michigan, was created to provide athletes with support, coping skills and breakdown stigma surrounding mental health so that athletes would be more likely to address their mental wellness.

Athletes Connected was created in 2014 and is a collaborative, multi-faceted program developed by the U-M School of Public Health, Depression Center, and Athletic Department to increase awareness of mental health issues, reduce stigma, and promote coping skills among student athletes. The program features four key elements:

  • Brief, engaging videos to reduce stigma, encourage help-seeking and promote coping skills;
  • Informational presentations for all coaches and athletes;
  • Informal, drop-in support groups offered on a bi-weekly basis, designed to specifically address the unique concerns of student athletes.
  • Conducts research to better understand the student athlete population and mental health as well as sport performance.

*Program information taken from the 2014 NCAA Innovations Grant Final Report University of Michigan Developing and Evaluating a Model Program for Supporting the Mental Health of Student Athletes.

As a swimmer Emily Klueh won the 1650 at the 2008 NCAA Championships, took a bronze in the 10 km at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships and in 2013 was the overall winner of the FINA Open Water World Cup. Klueh is now a clinical athletic counselor and the program coordinator of Athletes Connected.

One of the main reasons Klueh became so involved in the area of mental health is because her own challenges, “I think a lot of people struggle with mental health,” says Klueh. “I know that was a driving factor for me getting into the field.”

“I think that there are a lot of people who have experienced things in their life where coping skills have been beneficial. For me, I know have the education, training, and license in order to accurately work with student athletes wherever they fall on the continuum of wellbeing. ”

Why Do Student-Athletes Not Ask for Help?

One of the biggest reasons people do not seek out help for mental health challenges is the stigma that surrounds the topic. This stigma can be even more powerful for the student-athlete because of the way society views athletes.

Athletes are often told to be mentally tough and control their emotions no matter what, “One of (the factors) is the tough it out mentality,” says Klueh. “People think athletes are supposed to be invincible and it is an unfair perception. Other people in particular athletes themselves, think they need to hide a lot of their emotions and just play or play hard. This That tends to diminish some people’s ability to feel comfortable in reaching out for help.”

Klueh also explains that because of the demands placed on student-athletes their ability to find open time to get support becomes difficult, , “I think that the other element is time. Student-athletes are so strapped for time it is really hard for them to find the time for themselves.”

“At Michigan they are constantly under pressure to do well both academically and athletically. The NCAA did research on time commitments of student-athletes and on average and depending on the sport, they spend 70-90 hours a week on a combination of academics and athletics. When you add in eating and sleeping there is really not much time for themselves.”

Developing Skills for the Mind

Almost all of an athlete’s training is spent honing their physical skills to achieve success on the field of play, but many do not develop their mental skills in the same way.

“Student athletes talk all the time about building their skills on the field, in the pool, on the court or getting stronger in the weight room, yet we don’t talk about how important those same concepts are for your mind. How beneficial those same concepts can be when you talk about wanting to strengthen your mind to be the best athlete you can be. To be the best person you can be.”

Recognizing student-athletes’ time restraints and reluctance to seek out support Athletes Connected provides strategies on their website which include different breathing techniques, cognitive exercises and behavioral skills such as mediation.

The information disseminated on the site is research based and contributed by mental health professionals, “The coping skills and strategies are coming from people who are trained in mental health. When it comes down to it we want to make sure that what goes on the website does have some evidence base to the content. .”

Letting Student-Athletes Know They are Not Alone

One of the ways to break down stigma and have athletes more receptive to asking for support is for them to understand they are not alone in their challenges with mental health. Recently one of the athletes who has courageously come out to tell her story is Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt.

Athletes Connected has put a lot of effort into creating incredible videos of the highest quality featuring athletes sharing their personal stories, “I think that having people share their experiences has been a driving factor in athletes connected,” says Klueh. “The videos are based off of people’s experiences. That is what tends to break down the stigma, having people talk about what they have went through, that it is okay, they can get better and that there are resources available.”

“We are going to start to do more blogs, more stories and other media strategies along those lines. Those will be more about people’s experiences and expertise in the field.”

This summer they are focusing on building resources and information on how injury affects athletes mental health, “We are working on our next video series looking at how injury effects mental health.”

“We are doing some different and fun things. We have just started the planning process. I have been doing a lot of focus groups with student athletes, athletic trainers and our academic support staff. These are the people who see the athletes every day and tend to notice first is something is going on. So just gaining as much information as we possibly can. Figuring out how these are going to be visualized the best and how we can really capture the best possible videos for student-athletes.”

Effectiveness of the Program

All of the preparation and planning that has gone into each of these videos has been worth it. One of the ways that Athletes Connected has reached out to student-athletes at the University of Michigan is through in person presentations where these videos are shown. In 2014 approximately 900 student-athletes attended their main presentation. After that presentation 662 student-athletes filled out surveys about the effectiveness of the presentation and 99% felt the videos were engaging and relevant to themselves or other student athletes.

These presentations have also inspired athletes to take action to address mental health concerns as the survey also found:

  • 96% of student athletes reported that they are likely to use the information from the presentations.
  • 63% of student athletes reported that emotional or mental health issues had affected their athletic performance in the last 4 weeks.
  • Over the course of the presentations, 40 students indicated that they would like to set up an appointment with an athletic counsellor to address immediate concerns.

After these presentations the surveys also showed athletes were:

  • More comfortable discussing mental health issues with their teammates;
  • More confident in their ability to identify a teammate who may be struggling with mental health;
  • More confident in their ability to help a teammate access mental health care/other support services on campus;
  • More likely to consider seeking help if they were having a personal problem that was bothering them;
  • More knowledgeable about depression;
  • More willing to accept someone who has received mental health treatment as a close friend.

Athletes Connected also runs drop-in support groups every second Wednesday at the University of Michigan. The students surveyed after attending one of these sessions felt:

  • They were more likely to speak with the following people if they were experiencing serious emotional distress: Professional clinician, teammate, support group
  • Group participation increased attendees readiness to seek further information about available mental health support services
  • 92.3% of attendees expect to apply lessons or skills learned in the group
  • 67% of respondents to a follow survey reported that they had implemented one or more strategies learned in the group- examples include meditation, relaxation, positive thinking, communication
  • 2/3 of respondents to a follow up survey either currently receive mental health treatment, accessed informal support services, or plan to make an appointment with a mental health professional in the near future.

The organization has seen extremely positive results when it comes to student-athletes at the University of Michigan, but because of the reach of their online presence they are beginning to have a powerful influence on many around the world, “I have a phone call with someone from the UK about athletes connected. It is great to hear that the messaging that we are putting is being well received. I have received feedback from individuals around the country about the difference these videos have made on them or the population they work with.”

“I have seen through society a lot of stuff is moving towards the online market. We are making sure that we have resources available for wherever an individual falls on the continuum of wellbeing to get that initial support on the website. If they need more support beyond that there are resources on the website that can direct them in place to get further support.”

On the site they have 11 links to different organizations at the University of Michigan and 12 more for anyone in America.

They also include a number of resources for family and friends who are concerned about their loved ones such as how to recognize distress and practical strategies, “There is significant research out there saying that friends and co-workers are people who are going to hear from those who are struggling first. So making sure that people who are a friend of someone who is struggling know what to do, where to refer them, or how to initially talk to a friend who may be struggling.”

“I am a huge proponent of preventative measures. I think the biggest thing is talking about mental health in order to break that stigma so that people can get the help they need or utilize resources that can be beneficial.”

Continuing to Improve the Resources Provided

Another one of their goals this summer is to increase the amount of online content, “We are really going to ramp up our online content and hopefully get some more articles out and really make the website a little bit more robust. Trying to keep the content relevant and at the forefront of everyone’s’ minds.

As an athlete and coach who has had his own mental health challenges, being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, I have found the information on the Athletes Connected website helpful for myself and have directed several others to see what the site has to offer.

The work that Klueh and her team have put into the organization is truly making a positive difference in many lives.

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Harold A. Maio
5 years ago

—-breakdown stigma surrounding mental health

Stop abetting people who say there is one. You help no one, and harm a great many.

5 years ago

Great work Emily! – Like that she’s going by her married name finally.

About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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