Study on Mental Health and Wellbeing of Collegiate Athletes During Pandemic

July 20, 2020
Trent Petrie

The UNT Center of Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence, in collaboration with Wayne State University, has released results in an ongoing study examining the overall health, performance and psychological wellbeing of collegiate athletes during the pandemic.

In March, the NCAA canceled sports seasons, and many students had to leave their campus housing due to the surge in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. UNT psychology professor and sport psychologist Trent Petrie had planned to look at the mental health of graduating athletes but quickly pivoted once the pandemic began to gather insight on how a broader group of collegiate athletes was handling the abrupt changes the virus had dealt.

“We expected there might be a wave of mental health concerns for athletes due to their experiences with COVID-19. As they are returning to campuses and resuming training, we wanted to provide data to help inform best practices for assisting athletes in need,” says Petrie, who prepared the study with UNT psychology doctoral students Tess Palmateer and Lindsey Slavin, as well as Whitney Moore, an associate professor at Wayne State University.

About 6,000 student athletes from more than 80 U.S. colleges and universities (including UNT) participated in a survey over the course of April and May. Responses were collected from athletes across a range of sports and NCAA division levels.

Athletes were asked whether they were experiencing any signs of depression, psychological distress, sleep disturbances, risky drinking, disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. Other questions measured their exercise behavior and whether or not they had participated in mental health counseling prior to and after the onset of the pandemic.

Survey results found that most athletes reported a moderate impact to their psychological health. A small, but sizable number of athletes scored at the highest levels in terms of depressive symptoms, psychological distress and dissatisfaction with life. Relatively few athletes reported having no symptoms or experiences of distress.

“Athletes who are returning to campuses have experienced multiple events related to COVID-19 and many are, right now, experiencing psychological distress, particularly as it relates to their bodies and eating. The effects of going through such COVID-19 events may not manifest immediately but may begin to show up as athletes face the immediate stress of returning to training and possibly competition,” Petrie says.

UNT follows the NCAA’s Mental Health Best Practices offering mental health screenings to all athletes each year, as well as any needed assistance or counseling. Petrie says mental health screenings will play an even more vital role this year.

“Given the potential ripple effects of going through this pandemic, professionals will need to continue to closely monitor the psychological health and wellbeing of their athletes. They also might consider investing in proactive/preventive programming to address prominent issues, such as female athletes’ body dissatisfaction,” Petrie says.

Petrie plans to follow up with surveyed athletes in August and continue to check in throughout the next year.