Monmouth University Athletics announced the addition of two positions to the Student-Athlete Development department to expand its mental health and sports performance services.
Alyssa Ercolino now serves as the department’s first full-time Sports Behavioral Health Specialist. She is joined by Pete Economou, Ph.D., ABPP, who has been hired as a Sport Psychologist Consultant.
“I truly believe in providing holistic support of the entire student-athlete [community]. Behavioral health and wellness is so important, especially with everything that’s happened in college athletics and in the world that we live in with the pandemic and social injustice,” explained Jennifer Sansevero, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Student Development and Senior Woman Administrator. “Now more than ever, it’s so important to offer our student-athletes behavioral health and wellness resources.”
In May of 2022, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) worked with NCAA Sport Science Institute and the Division I, II and III Student-Athlete Advisory Committees to conduct a survey assessing the wellbeing of over 9,800 NCAA student-athletes. Results showed that student-athletes continue to report elevated levels of mental health concerns including mental exhaustion, anxiety, and depression, all of which are 1.5 to two times higher than identified before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The survey also found that only 55 percent of men’s sports participants and 47 percent of women’s sports participants reported feeling as though their mental health was a priority to their athletics department.
“During my time here at Monmouth I do think we have made great strides in the realm of mental health, but I think improvement can be made and we can continue to collectively get better,” said Cassie James, Monmouth Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (MSAAC) President and member of the women’s lacrosse team. “It is incredibly hard being a division one athlete, and many athletes face all the obstacles that come with being a competitor along with the feeling that no one understands them.”
James also described a widespread hesitancy among student-athletes to share their struggles with teammates and coaches, noting a fear of judgment and lack of understanding.
“Mental health can no longer be segregated from physical health, and the importance of student-athlete well-being has come to the forefront of university campuses across the country,” said Enonomou, noting the significance of Monmouth’s decision to add these two positions.
“No longer? I don’t think it ever could,” added Jennifer Mcgovern, Faculty Athletics Representative and Sociology Program Director. “You’ll hear people say that you have to feel good to play good, and that’s so true. Prior to now we’ve always thought about that as being physical health. We wouldn’t send someone out on the pitch with a sprained ankle, yet we’ve been totally fine with someone not feeling all the way there entering into a competition. It’s more recently that we’ve begun to look at health more holistically.”
“Mental health isn’t new. We’ve always had that, and we probably should have been working on it. But I do think that today’s young athletes have a very unique set of pressures and I don’t know if that’s solved by throwing more resources at it when they get here,” Mcgovern continued, citing growing pressure from the youth sports system as a source of physical and mental burnout for young athletes.
Sansevero noted that the addition of the Sports Behavioral Health Specialist and Sport Psychologist Consultant roles were the product of listening to and understanding the needs expressed by Monmouth’s student-athletes and seeking to provide them with the resources they need to succeed. Despite losing a position during the COVID-19 pandemic, her department was able to repurpose another position in order to add these new mental health resources.
“I think it’s a great start and it’s necessary and critical to provide this for our student-athletes,” explained Sansevero. “We’re in a new conference and our peers are providing these types of resources in high level care to their student-athletes and I think it’s important that we raise our game.”
Although counseling services are available for all students at Monmouth University, Mcgovern, a former college athlete herself, noted the importance of having mental health services tailored to the unique needs of student-athletes: “There’s things [student-athletes] go through that the average student doesn’t and that regular counselors may not fully understand. If you can find people who are experts in the kinds of issues that college student-athletes face, then they’re going to be better able to help.”
“Unless you are an athlete yourself, no one truly understands the pressure, expectation, and daily life we maneuver,” added James. “Having an individual that is skilled to deal with just athletes is extremely beneficial and should be a foundation for all athletic programs.”
The services provided by these new mental health and sports performance resources were made immediately available to all Monmouth University Athletics student-athletes, coaches, and staff.