The Sociology of Higher Education

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.

Check out our final project zine!

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.

Our Project


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.

The Data

In total, we conducted 11 interviews spanning the UChicago Athletics community, and each interview lasted anywhere between 12 minutes and one hour. Qualitative data analysis took place after the interviews were transcribed and coded by theme. Our first round of coding led to an identification of three main themes, around which we then framed the rest of our analysis. By creating a codebook to outline these themes and examples of them, we were able to summarize our findings and reach meaningful conclusions.

The interviews were split up as follows:

Coach 1
Male Basketball Player 2
Female Basketball Player 2
Female Swimmer 2
Male Swimmer 1
Male Swimmer 2

Coach 2
Coach 3
Male Basketball Player 1
Female Basketball Player 1
Female Swimmer 1

Discussion & Analysis

We found that three major themes emerged from our data that, together, show that mental health help-seeking behavior does differ based on team structure: first, the data indicates there is a lack of standardization with regard to structured approaches to mental health wellness across teams; second, our participants generally partake in sports teams that vary based on their levels of team cohesion, dictating how great of an effect the team itself can have on their mental health help-seeking behaviors; finally, our data clustered around identifying the varied coach-athlete relationships formed, and how they impact individualized help-seeking behaviors based on levels of comfort and approachability.

Seven out of eleven interviewees, expressed that there are no unique resources available to student-athletes and the athletic department at large, forcing both coaches and captains to take on additional roles for which they lack the proper training.

Additional resources can be found in the form of athlete-specific, student-run, gendered organizations. These organizations, however, were only mentioned by female interviewees, who also alluded to their presence in the female student-athlete community as being stronger than within their male counterparts. When asked about hypothetical standardization or expansion of resources for student athletes, the majority of participants responded in favor, highlighting the lack of readily available, professional help for student-athletes.

All participants stated that teammates generally rely on each other for support with regard to mental health concerns. However, who they choose to rely on, largely comes down to the cohesiveness of their respective teams. More specifically, on the swim team, which consists of ~70 student-athletes, students find themselves breaking off into separate units, while the basketball teams remain as one because they are of significantly smaller size. Two male respondents mentioned being comfortable speaking only with other males about mental health; for others, gender was not a factor. All male student-athlete interviewees, spoke about a gendered reality of discussing and seeking help for concerns pertaining to mental health, wherein females are more comfortable being vulnerable. Two out of three coaches mentioned a gendered approach to mental health, but did not state that those differences affected the realities on their team.

All interviewees mentioned the importance of the personal relationship with their respective coach/student-athletes. As part of the help-seeking process, a coach-athlete interaction was most often designated as the step before seeking professional help. The approachability of coaches, which in part stems from their relatability, was identified as a crucial factor determining their involvement in a student’s help-seeking process. Student-athletes who felt that their coach was more experienced and comfortable with the subject of mental health approached their coach earlier in the process.

At least six students felt that mental health should be more explicitly discussed, rather than inferred through vague language, alluding to a clear lack of consensus on the definition of mental health and differences in mental health literacy. All of the coaches understand their own approaches to mental health wellness, for their players, as being proactive, when in reality, many players expressed that more should be done with regard to mental health, such as just starting the conversation.


In conclusion, the above themes, and their respective issues that were presented by interviewees, have led us to believe that in order to provide a standardized and proactive approach to mental health wellness for student-athletes at the University of Chicago, the addition of an athlete-specific resource, such as a sports psychologist, is needed. In doing so, not only would each athlete have equal access to a professional that understands the specific concerns of a student-athlete, but this would also ensure that all student-athletes can receive the same help with the added comfort provided by an unbiased and objective perspective, independent of the complications resulting from personal relationships with teammates and coaches.

Note: All references used to conduct this project are listed at the end of our Zine linked above.

Questions? Contact us!

Luna Splendori – 

Vicky Berman –