INDIANAPOLIS — As athletic trainers at the University of Indianapolis, Brian Gerlach and Makenna McAteer have grown close to their athletes.
“They have so much going on these days off the field,” said Gerlach, director of sports medicine at UIndy.
“We do handle the physical problems,” said McAteer, assistant athletic trainer and mental health coordinator, “but also being able to build that relationship over time with our student athletes, I think, is something we all take very important and personally.”
By building those relationships, McAteer and Gerlach have been the sounding board for players, often learning some of the most private and personal details of their lives.
“They have so much going on these days off the field,” said Gerlach.
It’s a realization that many colleges and universities are taking notice of. Within the last several months, several stories of successful college student-athletes taking their own lives have made national headlines.
In at least one of the cases, high expectations and pressures were part of the overwhelming stress endured.
“Our student-athletes are humans. They are humans first. We need to make sure they are ok as a human,” said McAteer.
At UIndy, athletes undergo a yearly mental health screening process, as required by the NCAA.
McAteer, who is also the mental health coordinator, says she advocated for changes in the process to better address the well-being of players.
“I wanted to look a little deeper into how we can catch things before they become a crisis,” she said. “We reinstituted a more thorough screening process.”
With help from team doctors, psychologists and dietitians, UIndy student-athletes are thoroughly surveyed and screened on their habits and how they align with symptoms of issues like anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
“It talks about like do you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, do you have trouble focusing,” McAteer said. “So just a gauge if someone is at risk for depression, or anxiety or an eating disorder, and then that helps us know who they need to see and how quickly.”
“If someone scores really, really high on that, or scores for say, self-harm, we’re going to refer them as quick as possible,” she added.
Through this method, McAteer says nearly 30% of UIndy athletes have flagged in some way, shape or form. While some have declined needing services, others have taken up the offer.
“It has been a huge influx of people reaching out for help, or that we talked to, who end up wanting to get help,” said McAteer.
At Butler University, more student-athletes are also utilizing services.
“I do believe that’s because the message is becoming more clear to them that you do need to take care of yourself, mentally, in order to be able to perform at the level that you want to,” said Shana Markle, associate director of Counseling and Consultation Services.
At Butler, Markle says Counseling and Consultation Services works closely with the athletics department, offering resources to student-athletes and the general student population.
Students can inquire about group or individual therapy sessions, which include no limits and are also completely confidential. Markle says a barrier for student-athletes can sometimes be the possibility of others finding out they’re seeking help.
“We want to make sure, when we meet with student-athletes, that they recognize that their worth and their value is beyond what they do when they’re performing or who they are as an athlete,” she added.
UIndy also has a partnership with Community Health Network, along with a peer support group that’s led by student-athletes. Students can also utilize the Community Health Network Crisis Line by calling 317-621-5700, option 1.
McAteer and Gerlach say just having someone to talk to can make a world of difference. From parents and friends, to teammates and coaches, they say it’s important to check-in on loved ones because you never know what someone could be dealing with.
“Having these conversations, talking about it, talking about it with peers, coaches talking about it, giving people grace, maybe asking them questions, maybe pulling them aside if someone seems off” said McAteer, “That’s something we can do because we know our athletes, but it’s important for coaches too because we all have different relationships.”