MINNEAPOLIS — Between 30% and 40% of Gophers athletes used the athletic department’s sports psychology services last school year, senior associate athletic director Joi Thomas told the Board of Regents on Thursday.

Joi Thomas mug

Thomas

Thomas cited that statistic during a presentation on the athletic department’s emphasis on improving mental health awareness, which was a key part of AD Mark Coyle’s annual report before the Board.

Mark Coyle mug

Coyle

The numbers immediately caught the attention of Joan Gabel, the school’s new president.

Gabel, previously the provost at South Carolina, spoke about how passionate she is on student mental health issues, something she describes as an “epidemic” and a “crisis” at universities across the country.

“Often well over 40 percent of our students arrive on campus with a mental health diagnosis,” Gabel said, speaking generally. “And then we receive them where they are, as their institution, as their home and as a member of our community and our family.

“Of course, we want to provide the appropriate resources for the care associated with receiving that diagnosis. But we also want our students to be successful.”

In January, the NCAA passed legislation outlining that current and former athletes are “guaranteed access” to mental health services. It was adopted by the Power Five conferences at the NCAA Convention.

In addition, NCAA schools are required to distribute mental health educational materials to athletes, including a guide to resources available at the school and how to access them.

“What we’ve seen is our student-athletes are very aware,” said Thomas, who heads the Gophers health and performance departments. “We are seeing students coming to campus with much more mental health needs than we’ve ever seen before.”

Coaches and teammates are getting better at recognizing when others are experiencing mental health issues, Thomas said.

“And then, they’re comfortable coming forward,” she added. “A student-athlete will come forward and say, ‘My teammate is struggling. Here are the things I’ve seen. I don’t know how to help them.’?”

Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino watched his team fight through adversity to reach the NCAA tournament second round last season. During that run players were being helped through struggles with mental health. Senior guard Dupree McBrayer lost his mother to cancer in December. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington wrote on social media before transferring closer to home at Iona that he experienced depression.

“This season took a toll on me mentally,” Washington wrote in April. “I started to lose the love of basketball and my grandparents health issues added more to it. I’ve took time to sit with a therapist to help me out.”

Former Gophers and Iowa State forward Royce White, whose NBA career derailed while dealing with an anxiety disorder, has been a prominent national advocate for mental health awareness. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in March at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston that “We are living in a time of anxiety. I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”

Before taking over for former U President Eric Kaler earlier this month, Gabel was on the board of a national panel of provosts tackling student mental health issues. She is in full support of the Gophers taking steps this summer to improve that area of a student’s experience at Minnesota.

“We want them academically successful,” Gabel said. “We want their beyond-the-classroom experience to be fulfilling. We want them to graduate in a timely way … become employed, continue to graduate school or whatever else is their next chapter. They need to be healthy in every sense of that word to have the best chance of doing that.”

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