Sacramento Bee Special Report

Special Report: Pushed to the limit

Athletes face immense pressure to perform well, but when the stress becomes too much, most colleges are ill-equipped to help

By Scott Howard-Cooper - Bee Staff Writer

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, October 8, 2006
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

The Bee's Scott Howard-Cooper can be reached at

Steve Masten died like so many of the others.

Alone while part of a team, feeling extremes of frustration while accomplishing so much, his end came on the morning of April 24 in Sparks, Nev., with a gun in his hand, pointed at his head. He was in the living room of his family home.

Gary Powers, the baseball coach at the University of Nevada, Reno, later would describe his young pitcher as an upbeat personality who fit in well with the team and was solid academically. The coach saw a mature 18-year-old who accepted the traditional, diminished role of freshmen in the program with an understanding smile.

Never, Powers said, did Masten seem troubled, let alone in a desperate place.

Masten's final words, though, insisted otherwise. Detectives for the Washoe County Sheriff's Office, in ruling the death self-inflicted, determined that the teenager had been depressed for some time, based largely on a suicide note that mentioned baseball as a cause of despair.

In that aspect, Masten became tragically common, a college athlete lost to severe depression and suicide who university officials said never showed signs of any problems.

In interviews with dozens of psychologists, school administrators, coaches, parents and athletes nationally over six months, The Bee found that most universities are ill-prepared to deal with college athletes in emotional crises, and many rely on systems that often become an impediment to treatment.

Sometimes, as in the case of Masten, universities don't realize their shortcomings until too late.

No one knows how many college athletes kill themselves each year: not the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which as the governing body for university sports ordinarily charts critical issues; not the schools themselves, which often promise blanket support for all an athlete's problems during recruiting pitches.

Experts say that having mental-health professionals dedicated at least part time to a college's athletic program makes athletes far more likely to seek help if emotional problems arise. Such programs also are far more likely to have written guidelines for coaches and athletes to identify problems and ways to seek help.

But of roughly 1,200 member-schools in the NCAA, only about 25 have mental-health professionals dedicated at least part time to athletes. Among California universities, the University of California, Davis, is one of only two schools with such a dedicated position.

Chris Carr, whose extensive résumé as a sports psychologist includes work with Purdue and Indiana universities, estimates that 50 Division I athletes attempt suicide each year, out of some 156,000 athletes playing for major collegiate schools. Sam Maniar, a sports psychologist at Ohio State, the only university to study mental health issues involving college athletes, suggests there are far more attempts each year.

Sandra Nevis, the training director of psychological counseling services at California State University, Sacramento, said of student-athletes facing emotional and mental problems: "They do face unique circumstances. They're a unique subculture, and yet we see them as a strength on campus. But they are very vulnerable."

Only Ohio State has studied college athletes and depression -- and that study was limited to 299 athletes on its campus.

At a time when the National Center for Health Statistics lists suicide as the third-leading cause of death among Americans ages 19 to 22 (in school or not), experts say they have no data to suggest college athletes are more or less likely than other classmates to take their own lives or battle severe depression.

Psychologists on college campuses do agree, however, that athletes face unique hurdles to counseling and may be discouraged from seeking any help at all.

The assumption that athletes are supposed to be tough and able to withstand physical and mental pain can make it difficult for some to admit they need help.

"In the athletic culture, it's not OK to have mental-health concerns," said William Parham, who worked with teams at UCLA for 21 years before becoming the dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill. "Mental health concerns are put on the back burner in the athlete's world."

Added Carr, "Ninety-nine percent of the athletes I counsel, when they begin to cry, they apologize."

Athletes do not necessarily have a tougher road than other students in an emotional crisis -- just a dramatically different one.

First, mistakes are magnified. An athlete's gaffe is witnessed by hundreds at the most minor of events and by millions at schools on national television.

And athletes often are too well known on campus to seek counseling without someone noticing. At most universities, athletes seeking counseling would be required to make an appointment and then sit in the waiting room of the college's student-health center. Some athletes interviewed by The Bee acknowledged their reluctance to seek help for fear any visit to the health center would spark gossip on campus.

Injuries, so common to athletes, can be an added burden to someone struggling emotionally. And medication to treat an injury can complicate mental-health issues, a particular risk if an athlete has not told a trainer or team physician about drugs prescribed by a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Finally, the concept of failure is staggering. The heavily recruited high school star who picks the highest level of college competition -- Division I -- often does not play as a freshman and may have a minimal role as a sophomore. To the athlete whose identity is based on sports, that transition can be overwhelming.

A survey by the Ohio State University Sports Medicine Center of 299 athletes over three school years, 2000-01 to 2002-03, found that 13.9 percent of the athletes were diagnosed with a "major depressive disorder." The survey ranked variations of depression, such as bipolar disorder, separately.

The Ohio State study, while credible, covers one institution. So when Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's associate director of education services, is asked if the sports national governing body has been slow to react to the problem, she responded: "I have no way to know that. We haven't done any surveys of our schools on this topic.

"There traditionally has not been outreach for athletes on this issue. The athlete has been isolated in some ways. ... All across the spectrum, the counseling does not meet the needs of the athlete and (his or her) schedule," Wilfert said.

Several articles in the nationally distributed NCAA newsletter have addressed the topic, and the organization last year hosted 20 sports psychologists to hear their concerns. Those efforts have earned the NCAA mostly positive marks from experts.

Still, the NCAA has been unwilling or unable to set national guidelines for emotional care in the same way it regulates things such as academic standards, the amount of time a team can practice or when and how a coach can recruit. Each athletic department decides for itself whether to provide mental health awareness training to its staff members.

Advocates for suicide prevention say university officials need to encourage their staffs, coaches and trainers to promote asking for help as a sign of strength and maturity. That begins by changing perceptions about mental illness and depression, especially among coaches, experts said.

"If you're having an issue and you go to your coach and say, 'Coach, I'm not playing well because I'm depressed, I need to get help,' you're not going to get help," said Brian Quinnett, a former Washington State University basketball standout who is now the national training director at the suicide prevention group QPR Institute.

"You're risking your playing time, you're risking your job on the team," Quinnett said. "It's not the kind of thing a lot of coaches handle well."

At most universities, if an athletic department employs a psychologist to help athletes, it is a "sports psychologist" who works with mental aspects along the lines of building confidence or teaching a basketball player to visualize making the free throw in the closing seconds.

"There are definitely people out there calling themselves sports psychologists who aren't (certified) psychologists," Maniar said.

Furthermore, experienced psychologists say if they are part of a sports program that allows them to have regular contact with teams, athletes are more likely to feel comfortable approaching them with any problems.

Ron Chamberlain, a psychologist at Brigham Young University since 1996, said he considers it an advantage to have an office in a building athletes frequent. Similarly, the three Ohio State psychologists affiliated with the athletic department are in the same complex as the trainers and team physicians, making it common for them to interact with athletes.

While Carr's sports psychology practice is in Indianapolis, he has an office about 65 miles away at Purdue in the same building that is home to many school teams.

Some schools introduce a psychologist or counselor to each team as part of the first day of practice or preseason physical, and distribute contact information.

But these schools are the exception.

"I think the lack of resources is a legitimate concern for universities," Carr said. "But I also know that if they make getting lights for a stadium or something like that a priority, it would happen. To me, it's more about priority than having the resources or not."

Consider that among the 25 or so schools that do employ such programs, one of the most recent to join the list was Denver University, a school with just 4,500 undergraduate students and 17 sports programs.

UC Riverside hired a psychologist to provide outreach to athletes in 1997, and has maintained that position as budgets tighten.

James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., hired Wendy Borlabi to devote half her time to the athletic department in 2005 -- about 16 1/2 years after Dan Haycock, struggling to make an impact as a pitcher and recently arrested for driving while intoxicated, went to the baseball field and shot himself. The athletic director at the time was quoted in the local paper as saying it was hard to believe the game could have been so important to Haycock.

The counseling center at Western Kentucky University has prepared a synopsis of warning signs for athletes in distress for the athletic department, and James Madison University posted a lengthy plan on its athletic Web site for crisis intervention, including a flow chart showing who calls whom in an emergency and the role each person plays.

But for most colleges, such plans don't exist.

"Denial may be a good word for it," said Gary Bennett, a psychologist at Virginia Tech. "There is a minimalization of the problem out there in some places because they haven't had to deal with it at their school yet.

"I would hope that word of mouth would spread, that there are several options out there for student- athletes, whether they have an eating disorder or an emotional crisis. But it seems like word is spreading pretty slowly at this point."


SIGNS OF DEPRESSION (side bar of newspaper article)

Warning signs that a college athlete may be in distress:

Changes in sleeping habits

Difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping for several days in a row is an indication of a problem.

Changes in eating habits

Sudden weight loss or gain, or talking more than usual about weight may be signs of using food to deal with stress.

Drug and alcohol abuse

Excessive use is a clear sign of at least a substance-abuse problem and possibly severe distress.

Withdrawing from social contact

Athletes who spend less time than usual with teammates, who are not visiting family and friends as often, and who spend less time talking to coaches might be pulling away from social contact as a result of a developing depression.

Decreased interest in activities that had been enjoyable

Students at risk may begin to give up listening to their favorite music, working out, dating or lose interest in their sport.

Talking excessively about death

Talking more about death or exhibiting a fascination with death is an indication of a problem.

Frequent complaints of fatigue or injury

Headaches and stomachaches are common symptoms, and unspecific pain or fatigue is often reported by distressed athletes.

Problems focusing

Athletes in crisis have such a hard time concentrating that even simple drills are hard to master.

Loss or change of emotion

Some who suffer from depression might become more animated and laugh at inappropriate times or become more upset and tearful than usual.

Increased irritability

Depressed people often sabotage what is good in their lives, so the athlete may start losing events, not executing plays or angering teammates. In general, suicide can be the ultimate act of anger in addition to an attempt to end suffering, a final lashing out.

Source: Western Kentucky University Counseling and Testing Services


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