Greg Schiano reaches into his pocket, pulls out his iPhone and holds it up.
“This thing right here has created something that never was,” Schiano said at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis last week. “I call it the comparison life. They live a comparison life through social media.”
That comparison life applies to college students across the country, but social media exasperates the pressures that are already on athletes, particularly college football players who often draw the brightest spotlight and the sharpest scrutiny.
And along with various other pressures – from the advent of Name, Image and Likeness to simply the task of performing at a high level in big-time college athletics – the strain on the mental health of athletes continues to grow.
Schiano said addressing mental health has always been important, but now more so than ever.
And it’s why Rutgers football, under the guidance of Dr. Peter Economou, the school’s director of behavioral health and sport psychology, has developed a multitude of ways for players to seek help should they need it.
“In our field of sports psychology, when I teach it – that’s one of the unique things we do here is that I’m an academic, so I bridge the gap between academics and athletic − you’re using research and really applying what we’re learning in the laboratory,” Economou said. “So we kind of think of ourselves as anthropologists because it’s newly integrating into sports.”
Along the way, shattering the stigma associated with mental health has been a priority.
“We’re in a social-media driven culture and we’re in a social-media driven business,” safety Avery Young said. “We’re looking to produce revenue and produce viewers for more revenue. So it’s something that puts a lot of pressure on you especially when you’re trying to win a football game, and if things aren’t going the right way, then everybody turns their back on you or turns on you. It gets a little dark at times. But with all the resources we have now at Rutgers, it’s like a weight lifted all your shoulders, I would say.”
The Big Ten has been at the forefront of addressing mental health needs for its athletes, which includes free and unlimited access to the calm mental fitness app. Economou sits on the conference’s mental health and wellness cabinet, which was established in December, 2019.
A survey conducted by the NCAA in 2021 found that two-thirds of athletes knew where to go for help, but less than half felt comfortable getting it.
Economou and his team, along with Schiano, have addressed that issue.
“Coach Schiano is a huge advocate of mental health,” said Economou, who has been at Rutgers for four years. “He is very supportive and vocal around the importance of it, that it’s equally important in terms of physical and mental health. That allows and has provided an opportunity to engage more and be around and part of the team culture.”
Mental health providers are around during team meetings, practices, games and other events. They’ve become apart of the program.
Economou said his team has a “whole gamut” of members from various experiences and education levels to help players from a wide array of backgrounds. They also work and educate with other members of the program, including athletic trainers, the strength staff and administrators.
The interdisciplinary care is “across the entire system,” Economou said.
The integration into sports is still new, which means it’s still evolving and growing. Psychologists are still learning methods and techniques to treat mental health at a time when college sports – college football, especially, is constantly changing.
But the effect of social media is here to stay – from trying to compete in that “comparison life” to seeing and reading criticism or, in some cases, vitriol.
“If you ever watch people when they do that, they take this picture, they take that picture, and then they take the best picture and they post it,” Schiano said. “I tell our kids all the time, No. 1, you’re competing with the best of. And No. 2, if you wouldn’t go ask that person for advice, then why do you give a crap what they think? And that’s what you do. When you read what somebody says about you, you’re letting them rent free into your brain.”
Economou said setting boundaries with how athletes use their phones is important so they’re “not taking control of us because they easily can.”
The effect of NIL, Economou said, is still being studied since it’s so new – the new rules only took effect last year.
In the meantime, the importance of addressing mental health remains paramount.
As pressures on college football players continue to grow, so do the need to address them.
“I think we have done as good or better job as anybody in the country in building an infrastructure for our players to have access to mental health professionals 24/7 and never feel like, ‘Well, I have an issue but I just couldn’t get anybody,’” Schiano said. “They know that we have resources to get that done, and that was something that was very important to me when we took over.”
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