Why We Need to Shift from Talking About Mental Health in College Athletics . . .
And Instead Start Talking about Workplace Health
This is a free online newsletter for Jason Stahl, Executive Director of the College Football Players Association (CFBPA). If you are a member of the general public who would like to financially support our efforts at the CFBPA you can do that here. If you are a past, present or future college football player, I ask that you consider becoming a member of the CFBPA.
In college athletics, and in American culture more broadly, a concern with mental health has picked up steam—particularly since the onset of the pandemic. On the one hand, this is obviously positive as it reduces stigma around getting help. On the other hand, I have begun to worry that concerns with something as broad as “mental health” has created its own set of problems.
My worry was crystallized by this largely-helpful New York Times article by clinical psychologist Huw Green. In the piece, Green asserts that we’ve reached peak “mental health” whereby the term has become more unhelpful than not. Green argues that since the term has now entered the realm of “euphemism” it obscures more than it reveals. Even at a basic level, does it mean that someone is “healthy,” as the term implies, or that they are suffering from something like anxiety or depression? Does “mental health” take into account something as severe as schizophrenia? By using the phrase, we often are led to more questions than answers.
Additionally, Green worries that the phrase tends to individualize a problem and thus its “correct” solutions. So, for instance, individual talk therapy is seen as the primary answer to the creation of “good mental health” as oppose to one intervention among many. According to Green, this individualization as well as the “vagueness of the term ‘mental health’ also means that it is ripe for cynical co-option.” In the end, Green asserts that he is “heartened by the increase in our attention on mental health. But I see it as one way of looking at our lives among others.”
What might be another way of looking at our lives that might be more helpful? I’d like to instead propose the framework of “workplace health”—particularly when we’re discussing improving the lives of college athletes. The world of college athlete advocacy has succumbed to “peak mental health” exactly as Green discusses the problem. The term as we’ve used it has become so vague that it has been easily co-opted by university administrators and coaches who are very often part of the problem of poor athlete health. Additionally, when solutions to poor mental health are discussed, talk and drug therapies are often the only ones mentioned. These work for some individuals but we also must remember that they are merely two possible solutions when many others are available. Moreover, they are two therapies which are focused solely on the individual as the primary focus of intervention. By shifting our focus to “workplace health” my hope is that we can extract ourselves from the problems of the “mental health” framework and instead promote healing of the mind, body and spirit through other collective, structural means.
At its heart, our CFBPA Platform for Change puts collective workplace health at the forefront. By improving this collective workplace health—by improving the environments in which college football players exist—you can positively alter the physical, mental and spiritual health of all the individuals that exist in those environments. I invite you to look at our full six-point platform—this is especially so for past, present and future college football players who we want to become members—but today I want to highlight three ways our platform looks to better the workplace health of college football programs.
The image at the top of this newsletter gestures towards our second platform plank: “Healthier practices similar to the NFL and Ivy League football enforced by a CFBPA-employed full-time representative.” College football practice facilities are workplaces and need to be treated as such. As the image above suggests, like any dangerous workplace, college football practice facilities should strive for a culture of safety which seeks to prioritize player health and well-being. Preventing injury and death should be prioritized as the highest value of all in football practice settings. Right now, in the vast majority of college football practice facilities, the opposite is happening and players are injured regularly. Deaths are not uncommon either. This is all happening despite the fact that the NFL, NFLPA and Ivy League football shows another way is possible. Should an individual football program or conference decide to embrace this culture change, we would love to be a part of it. For those that do, it’s obvious that such a change could be thought of through a mental health lens as well. Quite simply, athletes who aren’t injured are less prone to depression.
If our second platform plank were put in place, so could our first given that both involve enforcement through a CFBPA-employed full-time representative. The first plank reads as follows: “Guaranteed independent medical care enforced by a CFBPA-employed full-time representative.” In particular, we’d want these reps to be paying close attention to brain health as it pertains to concussions. In our focus on college athlete “mental health” in contact sports we need to consider that what these athletes may be dealing with is a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that has not properly healed. For instance, if a football player attempts suicide or is dealing with deep depression, a TBI very well may be at least part of the cause. A CFBPA representative should be on site making sure that the best technology and innovation are used to make sure brain injuries—like any other bodily injury—are given proper healing time before a player practices or plays in a game again. Additionally, CFBPA reps could implement programs like Concussion Legacy Captains which ensure that teammates are looking for signs of concussions in other teammates.
Finally, we want to continue to think about positive workplace health even after a college football player’s playing days are over. This is encompassed in plank #3: “post-football health protections.” This is kept intentionally vague to encourage innovative ideas. It might mean brain health insurance so players can continue to heal from their brain injuries after their playing days are done. It might mean standardizing what football programs cover after playing days are done. CFBPA Leadership Committee member, and former Clemson offensive lineman Justin Falcinelli, addresses both of these in a recent podcast which I urge you to give a listen to. Beyond such initiatives, at the CFBPA, through our alumni membership category, we are trying to provide a networking and support infrastructure for former players to plug into after their playing days are done. This community building can hopefully help former players more easily make the transition to a postgame life.
In arguing for a shift in lenses from mental health to workplace health, it is my hope that we start to see the environments and systems that college athletes are a part of and how a focus on them can lead to improved physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Such a shift away from away from biological or individualized understandings of “mental health” can also reduce the stigma that individual athletes might be feeling.