INDIANAPOLIS | Since the turn of century, the biggest concerns among sports medics have been ACL injuries — particularly in women — concussions, elbow injuries — particularly among pitchers — heat illness, steroids, spinal injuries, and conditions which might cause sudden cardiac arrest. Except for the latter issue, though, the emphasis on these others may have been somewhat misplaced.
That's not to say that ACL injuries and the like don't deserve much of the attention they've been getting. However, if you consider what is most likely to kill a college athlete, then there is one aspect of sports medicine which should go to the top of the list but historically — and inexplicably — has received little or no attention.
Until six days ago, here, at NCAA Headquarters.
Once you read the answer, your initial inclination may be to argue but the numbers don't lie.
The leading cause of death among college athletes is car accidents. Number two is sudden cardiac arrest — usually in basketball. And number three is suicide.
Consider additionally that more than half of fatal car accidents are alcohol-related, recall then that suicide ranks third, and the only logical conclusion is that mental health should go to — pardon the pun — the head of the class.
For that reason, the National Athletic Trainers' Association brought together leading sports medicine experts from around the country for a press conference timed to coincide with the publication of an Inter-Association Consensus Statement regarding student-athletes with psychological concerns.
The speakers with the impressive professional credentials were Brian Hainline, MD, the chief medical officer for the NCAA; Jim Thornton, MA, ATC, the president of the NATA; Timothy Neal, MS, ATC, assistant athletic director at Syracuse University and lead author of the Consensus Statement; Margot Putukian, MD, head team physician at Princeton University; and John Sullivan, PsyD, sports psychologist at Providence College and University of Rhode Island.
Hainline spoke about the “unique stressors” that being a student and athlete brought to the college-aged individual. In November, he will host the NCAA's first mental health task force meeting.
Thornton praised the cross-section of professional medical organizations which came together to produce the Consensus Statement, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Athletic Training.
Neal said he thought mental health care in college sports is currently where concussion care was 10-15 years ago. His hope is that the Consensus Statement raises awareness among coaches, athletic trainers, and athletes, while reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.
Putukian said, “It is a privilege to know these athletes and with that privilege comes responsibility.” She called for all colleges to incorporate a mental health provider into their sports medicine teams. She concluded that, “Seeking counseling is a sign of strength.”
Sullivan, the psychologist, asserted that the athletic trainer is the key individual to identify trouble because of his or her daily interaction with the athletes. He urged all concerned to get this issue in front of college athletic directors.
Following Sullivan, there was one more speaker whose credentials were most impressive of all. Will Heininger, a 2011 Michigan grad and four-time Academic All-Big-Ten Winner as a Wolverine defensive linemen, is no medical professional. He was once treated for severe depression. Next week, his story.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.