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Mental Health Champs

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From left: Taylor Lester and Katie Benoit at Reeves Field. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Student-athletes’ physical wellness has been a longtime focus for athletic departments, from trainers to recovery resources, nutrition, and more.

But as part of a growing movement of schools, AU has also bolstered its mental health resources in support of players’ success inside and outside the lines of play. That includes the recent addition of full-time positions devoted to holistic wellness.

“We work closely with our student-athletes for only a short time, but we want to set them up for success well beyond when their playing careers end,” said Katie Benoit, associate athletic director for student-athlete well-being, who has overseen AU’s physical and mental health programming since July 2022. “Letting them know their overall well-being is a priority helps students know they have support.”

In a changing college sports landscape, Benoit identified mental health as one of the top challenges today’s student-athletes face—including the 297 who play 16 varsity sports at AU. Unlike their on-field performances, struggles in daily life don’t show up on the stat sheet.

“The pressures our student-athletes feel are unique,” Benoit said. “Only they can truly understand the world they’re living in and all that’s being asked of them.”

A recent national NCAA survey of nearly 10,000 student-athletes found that only half of respondents think that mental health is a priority for their athletics department. And despite reporting high levels of mental exhaustion and anxiety, just 47 percent felt comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.

Sports clinician Taylor Lester joined AU in July 2023 as part of the university’s commitment to providing players with holistic supports. Lester, a former softball player at Stonehill College, provides individual and group mental health counseling for student-athletes through the athletic department and the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services.

Lester can help clients with a variety of concerns, including managing depression and anxiety, dealing with injuries, and coping with the loss of sports as a senior. Her own background in athletics, while not a requirement for the job, benefits her in understanding the scope of her work.

“Having that connection working with the athletes definitely helps,” Lester said. “A huge thing around the stigma of student-athlete mental health is them not feeling comfortable enough to seek services with a counselor—usually because they are taught to be strong and to deal with it on their own and in their own ways.”

The work at AU comes as institutions across the country are being tasked with providing more institutional support for their student-athletes. In April 2023, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors adopted mandates for a “holistic student-athlete benefits model.”

By August 2024, that legislation will require athletic departments to attest that they provide “career counseling and life skills” programming for student-athletes around mental health; strength and conditioning; nutrition; name, image, and likeness opportunities; financial literacy, transfer requirements; career preparation; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; and campus sexual violence prevention.

In addition to that requirement, AU Athletics, in partnership with the Center for Well-Being and Psychological Services, has committed to anonymously surveying its student-athletes annually. Consistently asking about their habits and experiences will help AU adjust wellness programming and tailor resources to the specific needs of its players.

“Creating an avenue for students to be honest about their current habits helps us develop programming that is impactful,” Benoit said. “If we don’t ask them, we won’t know.”