Utah and the Pac-12 want to help athletes by addressing mental health head-on

(Photo courtesy of Steve C. Wilson | University of Utah) Utah's Kenzie Koerber, shown in a 2018 match vs. Stanford, was one of three Utes who competed for a USA Volleyball team during a tour of Japan in May.

Kenzie Koerber fit the profile of hundreds of athletes who have joined University of Utah teams. She starred in high school volleyball in Southern California, became heavily recruited and chose a school that offered high-level competition in the Pac-12 Conference.

Once enrolled, Koerber faced the pressure of performing on the court and adapting to life away from home. She needed help. And that also makes her college experience common.

“My freshman year, I really was struggling,” said Koerber, who will be a junior in the coming season. “Everything was difficult for me.”

She met regularly with a staff psychologist in the athletic department and it improved her outlook. “To look back where I was,” Koerber said, “it’s night and day compared to the person I am now, with the help of the people that we have here.”

Mental health has become a major topic in Utah’s athletic department, partly in an effort to remove any stigma some may feel talking about it. Administrators could have chosen any cause or project to engage donors during the U Giving Day in May. They selected mental health initiatives, aiming to increase staffing and services.

Ute Athletic Director Mark Harlan’s hope is for mental health to be regarded the same way as physical injuries, requiring rehabilitation. “We’re treating that like a broken bone now, plain and simple,” he said. “That’s our approach. Our coaches know it, our staff knows it, out student-athletes know it. There is no need to be fearful, to hold back on what you’re thinking. Let us help.”

That's happening. The sessions are confidential, but administrators track participation levels that are “very robust, which I think is great,” Harlan said.

Nationally, the need is significant. Nearly half of women’s athletes and one-third of men’s athletes reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety,” according to National College Health Assessment Data. Athletes in track and field, soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse most commonly have symptoms of depression, the Center for Epidemiological Studies reported.

In May, the Pac-12 announced that its schools now spend at least $1.1 million annually for on-campus mental health efforts, while extending a $3.6 million program to research other health-related projects. Utah is involved in two major studies stemming from that initiative, related to recovery from concussions and ACL surgery.

“I give this league a lot of credit; I think it's been on the forefront of mental health for a long time,” Harlan said.

More evidence of Utah’s effort to promote mental health awareness is the new “wellness advocate” category at the department’s annual Crimson Carpet Awards, recognizing outstanding performances. Softball star Ally Dickman was honored for efforts that included bringing the Dam Worth It campaign to campus, as athletes and staff members learned from the program started at Oregon State.

Coaches are being taught to “look for signs that maybe before they weren't necessarily trained to see,” Harlan said. “I think that's where we've seen a lot of growth.”

Volleyball coach Beth Launiere said, “The landscape of collegiate athletics has changed drastically in terms of mental health, understanding the need for [services]. We’ve always asked a lot of these athletes. They’ve always been under a lot of stress. … We recognize that we have to up our support now.”

Counseling was a key component of the school's response to the on-campus death of track and field athlete Lauren McCluskey in October, aiding her teammates and other athletes affected. “Tragedy doesn't go away,” Harlan said. “That moment allowed us to be very open with how everyone was feeling.”

Harlan credits former AD Chris Hill for adding Jonathan Ravarino to the athletic department as the director of psychology and wellness. Uma Parameswaran Dorn, an assistant clinical professor of psychology, moved across campus into athletics in January.

“Our athletes are very resilient, but they also go through periods of significant stress. Leaving home … all the stresses of college,” Ravarino said in a U Giving Day message to donors. “On top of that, they have the performances concerns and the expectation to do well and to win. … We help them with anxiety, depression, sleep concerns, relationship concerns; just feeling more confident on the field and off the field.”

In recent interviews, Koerber and volleyball teammate Saige Kaahaaina-Torres were asked how aware they are of mental health services offered to athletes. Kaahaaina-Torres cited how posters are everywhere Ute players go, from the weight room to the practice facility to the nutrition station. Koerber eagerly shared her own experience of how counseling helped.

“Now, I don't have to use those tools as much, because I've grown up in a lot of different ways, but it's definitely something I've been really appreciative of,” she said. “I know a lot of people are trying to take care of things on their own. I knew I couldn't [do that].”

That level of awareness is what Ute coaches and staff members are advocating, “trying to break down the stigma of it,” Launiere said. “I know that there are still student-athletes who don’t think they need any help.”