Following the third annual Black Student-Athlete Summit at The University of Texas, we interviewed two scholars to get insight into how the culture of sports can both complicate and enhance black student athlete mental health.

Dr. Caroline Brackette, a professor of counseling psychology at Penfield College of Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia, discusses what makes reaching black student athletes a challenge. Seeking mental health services is often stigmatized in the African American community as a whole, and such issues are more often addressed in church or within the home. To make matters more difficult, says Dr. Brackette, “Students say they don’t have enough time – too many athletic obligations, too many academic obligations, too many social obligations.”

Black Student Athlete Mental Health – A Fear of Weakness

With males, and especially black males, we see gender stereotyping where talking about your emotions can be seen as weak. For an athlete, “weak” is the last word they want to be associated with. “If you’re not strong mentally, then you won’t be strong on the field” is a fear that Dr. Brackette identifies as holding back many young, African American male athletes.

Dr. Brackette suggests to address these issues, there needs to be more education about what counselors can do for an individual’s overall health, coupled with less judgment. She says the language should focus on what you’re doing to reach your goals and meet outcomes in your personal life, adding “we need to help athletes recognize that they’re gaining leadership and resiliency skills on the field that can transfer off the field.

It’s an eye-opening moment for Dr. Brackette when a client opens with, “can I be honest with you?” This strongly implies that they can’t be honest out in the world because of perceived expectations. “I have everything together and I am a strong, black male,” Dr. Brackette says, “But behind the façade there’s a person with feelings, and we want to make sure we’re not making judgments about people solely on outward behaviors.” She suggests boisterous behavior or aggression can be a coping mechanism. But sometimes, it is in fact someone who is experiencing mental health issues.

Trauma and Behavior

Following the interview with Dr. Brackette, we speak with Dr. Ryan Sutton, a postdoctoral fellow of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at UT Austin. His background is in forensic psychology but he’s had the opportunity to focus his research on systems effecting males of color, including schools, juvenile justice, courts and more.

Through his research, Dr. Sutton surmises that one’s behavioral outcomes are not solely based on that individual but interactions of various systems within that person’s life, and that this “contextualized behavior” is a symptom of something greater than the behavior itself. By placing one’s behavior within the context of one’s neighborhood, micro-aggressions, and the impact of stereotypes, for example, we can get a more balanced and realistic perspective that allows for holistic support of the individual.

“Sometimes maladaptive behavior within a maladaptive system is, in fact, very adaptive,” says Dr. Sutton. When individuals find themselves in undesirable circumstances, they find ways to cope – even if they’re not healthy coping mechanisms (such as drug use).

Dr. Sutton is using this research to suggest ways to modify the behavior in a more meaningful and significant manner.

Twice Reinforced Not to Seek Services

Racial traumas against African American males, such as micro-aggressions, micro-assaults, and micro-invalidations, combine to affect a black student athlete in myriad ways. They already face stigma attached to being a student athlete and stigma attached to being black, which effects the way they respond to and interact with other students, teachers and professors.

This framework is helpful in understanding why black student athletes typically don’t want to bring undue attention for stigmatized services, such as mental health counseling.

Athletic culture instructs men to be strong and healthy, walk it off, fight through it. This mentality continues off the field and can impede efforts to receive mental health services.

Dr. Sutton suggests, however, that we’re also seeing an over-diagnosis of behavioral-based mental health disorders (such as ADHD and conduct disorder) in African Americas, and under-diagnosis of effective-based disorders (such as depression and anxiety). In short, race impacts what mental health disorders look like and how they’re diagnosed. Dr. Sutton also adds that, “research has shown that the impact of racial trauma increases depression, anxiety and even PTSD.”

The Hogg Foundation supports efforts to eliminate health inequities. The foundation’s Austin Area African American Behavioral Health Network (4ABHN) was founded in 2009 to provide networking and professional development opportunities for African American mental health professionals in the Austin area. Our most recent recipient of the 2016 Frances Fowler Wallace Award for Dissertation Research, Benita Bamgbade, is studying culturally tailored, evidence-based interventions on the mental health help-seeking behavior of African Americans, and we look forward to following her work.

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