Penn State

Added stress weighs on student-athletes

Penn State track athlete Tal Ben-Artzi warms up with her teammates for practice on Dec. 2.
Penn State track athlete Tal Ben-Artzi warms up with her teammates for practice on Dec. 2.

During her sophomore year at Penn State, student-athlete Tal Ben-Artzi realized she was struggling with something she couldn’t deal with on her own. On top of school work and her commitment to track and field, she was fighting depression and an eating disorder.

But Ben-Artzi, 23, knew where to turn. During her first semester after moving from her native Israel, she had met David Yukelson, sport psychologist for Penn State’s athletics department.

“I immediately sensed that I could trust him,” said Ben-Artzi, who is now a junior on the track and field team. “He’s a really big part of my experience here.”

Yukelson, 61, is the only sport psychologist for the student-athletes on Penn State’s 31 teams. He earned his doctorate in higher education, with a specialization in sport psychology, and has been working as a sport psychologist for 28 years.

Student-athletes have added stress when they come to college, Yukelson explained. They have to deal with the pressures of their sport, including the extra time for practice, competition, team-building and diet. They also deal with pressures put on by coaches, parents, fans and themselves.

Acute stress can often spiral into depression, Yukelson said.

Student-athletes constituted about 7 percent of the 76,000 students who sought mental health care at their schools’ counseling centers in the 2013-2014 academic year, according to data collected by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health from 140 participating colleges and universities. The center is a research project based at Penn State; 78 of the institutions have Division I sports.

Yukelson said many of the problems he works on with student-athletes are similar to those of other students, such as transition from high school to college, homesickness and interpersonal skills.

Because Yukelson is not a licensed psychologist, he said that when he feels student-athletes need more help than he can give, he refers them to the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services, known as CAPS.

Ben-Artzi said she decided she needed help from a psychologist when her calorie-counting and obsession with food intake started overwhelming her life. She went to CAPS, where she began meeting weekly with Dennis Heitzmann, senior director of CAPS.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” Ben-Artzi said of the support she received from Heitzmann, Yukelson and her coaches during that difficult time. She said that although she was nervous to approach the coaching staff about her mental health problems, she was met with the same reaction she would expect if she had rolled her ankle: support, concern and patience.

Ben-Artzi said she hopes that one day the stigmas surrounding mental illness will disappear and everyone will react the way her coaching staff did.

“I like to think the stigma has been reduced,” said Heitzmann, who has seen an increase in the demand for CAPS’ services over the 32 years he has been working there.

Heitzmann said all of the resources available to student-athletes and non-student-athletes are the same at CAPS. The one significant difference is that the services supporting student-athletes are underwritten by Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics.

This means that while non-student-athletes can get up to six free counseling sessions a year, student-athletes can have an unlimited number. Heitzmann said the number of free sessions for students not on athletic teams can be extended in certain circumstances.

Heitzmann said CAPS tries to expedite all of its cases so that students can become healthy and return to living their normal lives. Most often, he said, student-athletes seen at CAPS do not require more than six sessions.

For cases that may require more extensive treatment than CAPS is equipped to do, Heitzmann said, they occasionally refer students, both athletes and non-athletes, to private centers in the area.

The NCAA has been more aggressive in recent years in raising the awareness of mental health issues in student-athletes, Yukelson said. For example, the NCAA website features a booklet, “Mind, Body and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness,” which covers everything from describing the most prevalent mental illnesses to dealing with physical injury and illness.

Yukelson said he traveled to Indianapolis in mid-October for an NCAA mental health and well-being conference where sport psychologists from across the country gathered to discuss this issue.

“Athletics is what you do. It doesn’t define who you are,” Yukelson said.

Alyson Ackman, 22, a senior on the women’s swimming team, said her relationship with Yukelson began her freshman year when she was recovering from a shoulder injury and couldn’t participate fully in practices for two months.

In her sophomore year, she started going to CAPS. Ackman said she has been suffering with depression for seven years, which she associates with being forced to leave home at the age of 15 to pursue swimming in Montreal.

Even when she started going to CAPS, she said she maintained her relationship with Yukelson, who helped her focus on the swimming aspect of her depression.

“He gave me the reassurance that everything was going to be OK,” Ackman said. Speaking of student-athletes, she added, “All the crap we have to deal with is so stressful.”

Meg McLaurin is a Penn State journalism student.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of a six-part series on mental health on campus. The series was produced by students in Penn State’s College of Communications.