Student Athletes

Towson University offers the most comprehensive sports program in the metropolitan Baltimore area, fielding 19 NCAA Division I varsity teams that compete in the Coastal Athletic Association, the nation’s top mid-major conference. Student athletes represent a prominent group on campus and experience unique stressors that increase vulnerability to mental illness.

Emerging adulthood is an important and sometimes difficult developmental period. College athletes are faced with similar developmental challenges as their non-athlete peers and additionally must respond to the challenges and opportunities of collegiate sports. The sport environment has both risk and protective factors for mental health disorders. Additionally, genetic predispositions and environmental influences outside of the sport environment may impact mental health.

An estimated one in five adults will face a mental health condition each year, and the majority of those conditions develop by age 24. According to researchers at Drexel University and Kean University, nearly twenty-five percent of collegiate athletes reported “clinically relevant” levels of depressive symptoms. While students and student-athletes are affected equally, the competitive nature of sports also has engendered an attitude that can spur some to hide their difficulties with mental illness.

Among professional athletes, data shows that up to thirty-five percent of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. We are inspired by athletes such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, USC Volleyball player Victoria Garrick, NBA player Kevin Love and those who are telling their stories and inspiring others to seek help. Own your roar is an initiative started by TU athlete, Olivia Lubarsky, she shares her story to bring awareness to mental health issues that affect students athletes.

Mental Illness & Student Athletes 

Student athletes face the added stress of balancing high performance expectations with rigorous academic expectations. Athletes must find time to complete their classwork while training several hours per week. Athletes have many protective factors to help minimize the effects of depression, however when depression hits, it can be harder for athletes to reach out for the help they may need.

There are several types of depressive disorders and each has their own set of unique symptoms as well as depression may manifest differently for each individual. The persistent feeling of sadness or loss of interest that characterizes major depression can lead to a range of behavioral and physical symptoms, including:

  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in energy level
  • Lack of concentration
  • Low feelings of self-esteem
  • Changes in mood (guilt, anxiety, loss of interest in normal activities)

Depression can come in many forms, but is almost always a persistent feeling (i.e., it does not go away with time). Individuals with major depression may also experience thoughts of suicide.

If your safety or the safety of someone you know is at-risk call 911 immediately.

For more information check out our depression information & resources

Occasional anxiety is an expected part of life. Anxiety is hardwired into our brains. It is part of the body's fight-or-flight response, which prepares us to act quickly in the face of danger. It is a normal response to uncertainty, trouble, or feeling unprepared. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at school, before a big game, or before making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as athletics, job performance, school work, and relationships.

Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling nervous, irritable or on edge
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Having trouble sleeping

For more information check out our anxiety information & resources.

Athletics can be a place where both disordered eating and eating disorders can occur in high frequency. Disordered eating is classified as a spectrum of harmful or often ineffective eating behaviors that attempt to manage weight or attain lean muscle. While, eating disorders are more persistent disturbances of eating behaviors that impair physical or psychological functioning.

For more information on specific types of eating disorders check out our eating disorder information & resources.

Student athletes may experience more stress than non-athletes because they deal with both transitioning away from home and the pressures to perform in their sport. There is often an emphasis on how reducing body weight/fat can lead to better performance and to an athlete who is fighting for a spot to compete, this sets up a dangerous mindset. This idea potentially can lead some to partake in dangerous eating habits to improve their chances of playing without realizing the physical and mental toll.

Athletes who are struggling with eating may not ask for help and might be difficult to recognize as needing treatment. Once an athlete is recognized, some may fear that having to go through treatment will decrease their athletic performance or that they appear weak.

What can be done? Coaches and staff involved with student athletes are encouraged to become aware of disordered eating and eating disorder symptoms. Additionally, stigma associated with seeking mental health needs to be eliminated and those with influence play a key role in encouraging timely interventions.

As previously discussed, college student athletes face a variety of difficult and unique circumstances that may lead to experiences of stress, anxiety, depression, and a variety of other mental health concerns. College student athletes are also susceptible to the college effect, which occurs when binge drinking (i.e. 4-5 drinks in 2 hours) and other substance behaviors skyrocket at the start of a semester. This leads to sharp increases in sexual violence, alcohol poisoning, and other dangerous consequences.

According to the NCAA, student athletes report higher rates of binge drinking compared to other students on campus. Additionally, one in five male student-athletes who use alcohol report drinking 10 or more drinks in an outing when they drink. Interestingly, fewer student athletes report engaging in marijuana use compared to their non-athlete peers.

Although marijuana and alcohol are the most commonly used substances on college campuses, concern is growing for misuse of prescription medications, including narcotics. In their studies, the NCAA has found that less than 5 percent of student-athletes report using prescribed ADHD stimulant medication, however, more than 5 percent report using these medications without a prescription.

Additionally, a larger percentage of student-athletes are prescribed narcotics for pain medication compared to the general student body, which is understandable given the frequency of injury and pain in competitive athletics, but use without prescription warrants concern given the potential for addiction and/or fatal overdose.

Not all student-athletes with substance use problems consume alcohol or drugs in settings where the signs are easily visible. In fact, some may choose to consume these substances alone to avoid drawing attention to any potential signs. Understanding the signs of misuse can help you identify areas of concern in a friend or peer.

Alcohol: Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, decreasing concentration, reaction time, strength, and endurance. Signs of alcohol misuse include:

  • being irresponsible regarding commitments or responsibilities to school, sport and relationships
  • Consuming alcohol in situations that are dangerous to themselves and others

Stimulants (amphetamines, cocaine, and medications for ADHD): Stimulant substances increase heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, leading people to feel nervous or jittery. Signs of misuse include:

  •  Shakiness
  • Rapid speech of movements
  • Difficult concentrating
  • Lack of appetite

Marijuana: Marijuana is a psychoactive substance that can impact athletic performance by slowing reaction time, decreasing motor and eye hand coordination, and slowing perception of time. Signs of misuse include:

  • Red eyes
  • Lethargy

Talking to a student athlete whose substance use behaviors are a concern can be difficult due to the fact that students may fear being honest about their use. This could be due to worries about losing scholarships, ability to play, fear of punishment or student conduct sanctions, and many other concerns. It is important to express concern for the student without pushing them to tell you personal details. Instead, encourage use of on-campus resources, including the substance use counselors available at the Counseling Center. We also have an Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Prevention Center, staffed with health educators and peer educator who can deliver workshops and presentations to athletic teams and sports clubs to offer harm-reduction-based education and activities. You can also learn more substance use facts by visiting their website.

Want to learn more about your own substance use behaviors? Take our free, anonymous screenings to get personalized feedback about your use:

While it may seem scary, there are small steps you can take to help your mental health.

  • Talk to your family, teammates, coaches or support staff; someone who you feel comfortable sharing with.
  • The TU Counseling Center offers individual counseling services which may help you identify sources of stress and manage your symptoms.
  • Create a self-care plan for yourself to make sure you’re setting aside time from training, academics and pressures of daily life to do something for yourself each day, such as meditate, practice yoga, take a walk, listen to music or walk your pet.

Additional Resources