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Athletic Trainers Offer Guidance for Handling Students' Psychological Issues

In a consensus statement released Monday, the National Athletic Trainers' Association issued recommendations for how to recognize and help student-athletes with psychological concerns and/or mental disorders.

In conjunction with each school's athletic department and administration, NATA suggests athletic trainers develop a plan to recognize student-athletes' psychological concerns and help facilitate referring them to mental-health professionals. If the school does not employ an athletic trainer, it can still adopt a similar plan and modify its enforcement accordingly.

The association notes a host of specific factors that could prove detrimental to a student-athlete's mental well-being, including an injury or sudden end to his or her playing career, concussions, substance abuse, and bullying and hazing, among other things. If an athletic trainer or other school official detects a reason to be concerned about a student-athlete's mental health, the consensus statement recommends employing a team-based approach to address those concerns. Ideally, the team would include an athletic trainer, team physician, school nurses, and school counselors, along with community-based mental-health-care professionals (psychologists and psychiatrists).

When approaching a student-athlete about a particular concern, the statement suggests school officials point out "that mental health is as important as physical health," along with helping assist the student-athlete access the mental health care system. Doing so could help remove some of the stigma from mental disorders, as could emphasizing confidentiality to the student-athlete. NATA also recommends providing education on stress and stress-management strategies, saying it's "as beneficial as information on hydration, nutrition, and sleep to improve performance."

"Any threat to the student-athlete's identity as an athlete because of an injury, poor performance, or strife with the coach or teammates may trigger a new psychological concern or exacerbate an existing one," the association writes. "Mental-health literacy is a problem among school-aged students. Many do not recognize when they are experiencing symptoms."

Education, early recognition, and effective referral to the mental-health system are the most important factors in helping a student-athlete with a psychological concern, NATA concludes. Developing a plan to recognize and refer such student-athletes, in conjunction with the athletic department and school administration, could theoretically help students in need before their problems spiral out of control.

Mental-health issues have been at the forefront of the National Basketball Association in recent days, as former Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders offered an explanation last week on The Players Tribune about why he walked away from the game. Sanders spoke about his ongoing battles with anxiety and depression, saying he smoked cannabis medically for "some of the symptoms I was having due to a lot of stress and pressure I was under given my work."

In speaking with ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz a few years back, one NBA team executive confessed, "We don't do a very good job with mental health. We don't have any answers, and we're not doing a good job looking for them." The same could be said for every other professional sports league, too, not to mention K-12 and intercollegiate sports.

The National Athletic Trainers' Association isn't claiming to have all the answers when it comes to the treatment of psychological concerns and mental disorders in student-athletes. However, by developing a cohesive, team-based plan to recognize and help such athletes with those issues, schools could make a difference in the lives of some.

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