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More than just players: How mental health impacts student athletes

In 2020, suicide was the third leading cause of death for those ages 15-24, according to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education — the same range as student athletes.

DES MOINES, Iowa — We often view many college athletes from the vantage point of stadiums, arenas or even on TV, but what often gets forgotten is that they're human beings with feelings and personal struggles just like the rest of us.

"I hate to break it to you guys, but they're more than football players. They're brothers, they're sons, grandsons and I feel like a lot of people lose sight of that so I mean, I just view them as a person, as a relationship, as a friend, as a brother," said Jack Campbell, a Hawkeye football player. 

In 2020, suicide was the third leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24, according to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) — and high school and college athletes fall right into that age range.

Being an athlete is both physically and mentally demanding, and it can take a serious toll on one's mental health.

Earlier this year, five student athletes died by suicide within a two-month span.

Their deaths made national headlines and raised the question of what was being done to help those athletes who often suffer in silence.

"Ae look at young adults, it's really important to highlight just the severity that mental health and not getting treatment and not having support can have," Dr. Patricia Espe-Pfeifer said. 

Espe-Pfeifer is director of sports psychology and student-athlete mental health services at the University of Iowa.

She and her staff offer counseling, performance psychology services and psychological rehabilitation from injury. Basically, their work covers both the sports performance side and the mental health side. 

"Our sports performance side is using techniques to help optimize their performance on the court, on the field, in the pool to help them learn to focus and kind of build up their athletic skill," Espe-Pfeifer said. 

RELATED: Ohio man walks across the country to raise awareness for mental health

"The mental health piece is for those student-athletes that come in with pre-existing mental health concerns whether those are anxiety, family conflict, depression, ADHD or athletes that, once they transition to college, are faced with difficulties transitioning far away from home, difficulties just navigating things socially," she added. 

According to a NCAA study, the rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression student-athletes reported feeling are 1.5 to 2 times higher now than pre-pandemic.

Espe-Pfeifer said communicating with athletes and educating them of the services available is key to addressing this issue. 

"Taking care of your mental health, seeking out services, letting people know in your network, in your family, in your community when you're struggling is just so important," she said. "We might not be able to save everybody, but we hope that we will be able to provide services and get people hooked up with resources when they need them."

If you're interested in learning more this Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness' website for resources, data and more. 

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