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Trainers address mental health

INDIANAPOLIS – The National Athletic Trainers Association wants colleges to start treating the mental health of college athletes just as seriously as they do physical well-being.

The organization outlined a set of broad guidelines Wednesday that it believes should be adopted in an effort to help athletes cope with everything from depression to suicidal thoughts. The recommendations include using athletic trainers and team physicians to help with early detection of potential mental illnesses, provide advice and make treatment referrals while maintaining patient confidentiality.

Those who have dealt with mental illnesses say it’s overdue.

“If you’re an athletic director, and you want to be successful and you want to have good programs that are going to help your bottom line, wouldn’t you want the healthiest student athletes you can have? Wouldn’t you want the best mental health care providers and the best program in the country?” said former Michigan defensive tackle Will Heininger, who battled depression in college.

NATA believes there are more athletes like Heininger and that they are more likely to confide in trainers and team physicians than coaches or peers.

“There’s a stigma there, and they still don’t want to seek help,” said Dr. Margot Putukian, the head team physician at Princeton and one of the doctors who has worked with the NFL on establishing return-to-play policies following concussions. “So, you have a group of individuals that have inherent in them this issue of driving, pulling, pushing through any kind of obstacle. So when they have a mental health issue, oftentimes, they think there’s that obstacle – that they don’t want to seek help because they see it as a sign of weakness.”

While the root causes of mental illness vary, NATA said athletes face potentially daunting mental hurdles when they suffer season-ending or career-ending injuries and again when they return from serious injuries. Depression, fear of another injury, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and even suicidal thoughts can crop up. But the most prevalent symptom among college athletes tends to be substance abuse.

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