Former Syracuse offensive tackle Jonathan Meldrum remembers the scrimmage drill that had him considering suicide. He was a college sophomore, almost six and a half feet tall and over 300 pounds, and one of the school’s standout players. During the drill, he’d hit someone, and shortly thereafter the fellow returned the favor. “He hit me back so hard,” Meldrum, now 27, told me. “And I just started tearing up. If I’d had a gun, I’d have probably put a bullet in my head.”
Meldrum was battling depression, and not for the first time in his life. The trouble started in junior high school, right about when he began playing football. His parents had depression, and his mother was a drug addict. Meldrum’s grandparents had stepped in to care for him, and got him the help he needed—a combination of medication and counselling—to manage his low mood. When he arrived at Syracuse in the spring of 2007, after a short stint at the Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia to shore up his academic eligibility, he felt emotionally solid.
It didn’t last. “During my sophomore year, I got so I wasn’t able to control my ups and downs,” Meldrum said. His football career stalled, he clashed with his coach, and he had girl trouble. “I dreaded waking up. My body would ache. I felt physically sick,” he said. “It was very hard, as a man playing D1 football, to go to somebody and say ‘I’m having a hard time’,” Meldrum said. He marvels at his ability to have made it to practice every day while feeling so desperate. “Here I am, I’m feeling sick, I wished I would die, and I have to go out there and hit people.”
Meldrum is hardly the only college athlete to experience such debilitating depression. Data from the NCAA and American College Health Association, interviews with athletic trainers and clinical psychologists, and conversations with former college athletes reveal that a growing number of student athletes are struggling with mental health issues that often go untreated.
To be sure, college students as a whole are facing an epidemic of depression; the American College Health Association reported in 2013 that 31.3 percent of undergraduates surveyed felt “so depressed it was difficult to function,” and 7.4 percent admitted to seriously considering suicide. Meanwhile, a 2013 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors found that the ratio of college counsellors to students was 1 to 1,604; and a 2009 Healthy Minds Study revealed that just 22 percent of depressed college students received “minimally adequate treatment.”
While statistics for student athletes are not broken out, these young adults face distinctive pressures that can trigger or exacerbate a mental illness, and may require more specialized attention and treatment. Unlike the rest of the student body, college athletes—particularly those participating in the most competitive Division I category—must manage a full-time sports career while being full-time students. A 2010 NCAA survey on the “student-athlete experience” shows that undergraduates playing DI sports devote upwards of 32 hours per week to the game. Along with the extended hours come special deprivations that can wreak psychological havoc: weekends, vacations, family milestones, and summers are given over to the sport. First-time college athletes also experience a special kind of shock that comes from starting at the bottom; they quickly discover that every teammate was once a player-of-the week in high school, and that no competition is ever just for fun. Further, their athletic futures depend on the whims of the head coach, who may or may not be sensitive or fair-minded. When their college athletic careers end—and in sports other than baseball, less than two percent of the roughly 450,000 NCAA-student athletes go on to play professionally—the now-retired jocks have to adjust to an alien way of life, one that doesn’t revolve around workouts and competition.
Sports injuries are especially difficult for college athletes. Katie McCafferty, who ran cross country and track for Georgetown, remembers the homesickness and exhaustion she felt in transitioning from high school to Division I athletics. But hardest for her was the psychological fallout from a stress fracture she suffered after competing at the Big East Cross Country Championship in October of her sophomore year. “It was the first time I had ever experienced a true injury such as a stress fracture that really kept me out of the sport for such a long time,” she wrote in an email. The pain of losing her identity as a runner, even temporarily, on top of the isolation from her teammates, who continued to go out for runs while she pedaled on gym equipment, undermined her confidence and well-being. “The psychological impact of injuries is greatly underappreciated,” Timothy Neal, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at Syracuse, told me. “It’s a lot deeper and more concerning than people realize.”
A more pervasive source of stress for young athletes is the Darwinian culture of youth sports, which starts well before university and persists throughout it. The gifted few who make it to the collegiate level must adapt to what John Sullivan, a clinical sports psychologist and applied sport scientist, calls America’s “attrition model” of training, wherein college athletes are expected to endure more and tougher workouts, and are then discarded and replaced with new blood once they have been injured or gone stale. “When you over-train athletes, neurologically speaking the symptoms are quite predictable: sleep problems, anxiety, depression,” Sullivan said. “We’ve created a professional environment where, unfortunately, there’s a desire to find a way to do more,” he added.