How Resources Matter:
An Exploration of the Mental Health
Help-Seeking Behaviors of Student-Athletes
at the University of Chicago
Vicky Berman and Luna Splendori
This project was completed for pedagogical purposes for an undergraduate sociology course at the University of Chicago. While we are sharing results from our mini-project with the public, it is important that readers understand these are NOT findings from a human subjects research project intended to contribute to generalizable knowledge.
An introduction to our study
Mental health concerns are more prevalent on college campuses today than ever before (American Psychological Association, 2013). These concerns of mental health among student-athletes, specifically, have gained an enormous amount of attention in the media and literature (American Psychological Association 2013, Bird et al. 2020, Sander 2019) largely because this group of students often face additional pressures pertaining to both their athletics and academics. Despite a lesser emphasis on athletics at UChicago, a Division III institution, as compared to their Division I counterparts, students of the former are just as susceptible to the present-day mental health crisis. This stress build-up, resulting from the need to excel in school while managing an extreme time commitment relating to their respective sport (Gill, 2020), makes student-athletes at UC a particularly fascinating “breed” to study.
Many athletic teams are divided by gender, meaning they have distinctly separate team structures, coaches and practices, while others operate as a more cohesive unit, sharing practice times and coaches. This reality alludes to how gender may have a profound impact on the experiences of student-athletes seeking mental health guidance. We hope to extend the current conversation about mental health concerns within the student-athlete population and researched the following question: “How do student-athletes at the University of Chicago frame the role of team culture in facilitating or obstructing help-seeking behaviors for mental health concerns?” Specifically, we compared the influence of team culture across three teams that differ along the axis of gender composition: an all-female sport (basketball), an all-male sport (basketball), and a mixed-gender sport (swimming & diving), and found that mental health help-seeking behavior does, in fact, differ based on team structure.
The Existing Research and Literature
Much of literature up to this point (Topkaya 2014, Bird et al. 2020, or Owens 2018) has explored individualistic experiences and responses of student athletes through quantitative research and analysis. We, however, expanded upon this existing research by exploring how sports team division or cohesion based on gender affects the experiences of those seeking out mental health help. Thus, our primary goal was to gain a better understanding of group dynamics, filling this important gap in the literature, as well as how gender divisions shape those dynamics, and how they subsequently affect student-athletes’ approaches to seeking out resources to deal with their own mental health struggles at the University of Chicago.
Our primary sources informed our understanding of the general approaches for maintaining mental health wellness by the University of Chicago Department of Athletics and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. At UC, our primary sources consisted of the university’s athletics website, as well as the individual sub-sites made for specific teams, which helped us to understand the context surrounding mental health wellness within the UC athletic program and as compared to the NCAA.
For secondary sources, we looked at several academic journal articles to develop a complete picture of what has been established in the literature with regard to student-athletes and mental health help-seeking. These secondary sources allowed us to gain insight into student-athlete experiences in mental health help-seeking, narrow the focus of our project, develop an expanded view of the different barriers and facilitators young adults face, and formulate general background knowledge on the effects of gender and team structure on student-athlete mental health.
We wanted to research teams that differed fundamentally in their gender makeup, as well as how they interact with those of the opposite gender. We chose the Men’s and Women’s Basketball Teams as well as the Swimming and Diving Team because this is where we, the researchers, collectively knew the most people. Thus, because establishing rapport with the interviewees is of the utmost importance, especially when discussing a sensitive topic like mental health, we felt these teams would allow us to more easily identify and obtain interview subjects, as well as conduct more in-depth interviews.
We studied student-athletes and their respective team coaches. In doing so, we gained a more complete picture of team dynamics and approaches to mental health, why and how decisions pertaining to mental health are made by the coaches, how those decisions subsequently affect student-athlete help-seeking experiences, and how those actions are perceived by both sides.