FAU Athletics faces increased demand for mental health services

FAU provides resources for student-athletes to address mental health concerns.


Kelsie Roberts playing beach volleyball. Courtesy of FAU Athletics.

Mary Rasura, Staff Writer

Wake up at six a.m. Two-hour practice at seven. Eat. Three classes starting at nine. Go to the gym. Eat. Homework. Sleep. Repeat.

Many college athletes follow a routine like this every day, leaving no time to rest which can put a strain on their mental health. Jam-packed schedules and other stressors could be the cause of higher depression rates in student-athletes, according to FAU Team Psychologist Ralphi Wald.

“I think research has really shown that in some instances, physical activity and sports can be really beneficial for folks’ mental health and at the same time, we also know that it does not prevent individuals from experiencing mental health concerns,” said Tess Palmateer, the department’s director of athlete mental health and performance. “It doesn’t prevent them from having family stress, or illness, or injury, or anything of that nature.”

The Schmidt Family Foundation donated $670,000 to create Palmateer’s position. The donation also established the FAU Athletics Mental Health Fund.

According to a spring 2022 survey by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization based in Indianapolis, Ind., more than 80% of coaches stated they spent more time talking about mental health with student-athletes than they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

FAU Athletics staff said now more than ever, student-athletes are taking advantage of psychological services.

When Wald started over 10 years ago, he was concerned along with former head athletic trainer John Burnside, that students they worked with would be resistant to accessing services due to perceived stigma. They found that wasn’t the case. 

“I remember being surprised, it’s almost like if you take a drop of water and you put it in the desert, people are going to run after that resource,” Burnside said, referencing the sudden influx of students “It was a little relieving but it’s also somewhat surprising too, because you don’t know how big the need is until you make it readily available sometimes.”

Palmateer noticed a similar willingness from students.

“When I got here, I had no issues getting people in my office. It’s actually been really hard to keep up with the demand,” she said. 

Last October, FAU Athletics held a mental health awareness week along with 118 colleges and universities, celebrating the third annual Hilinski’s Hope Foundation’s College Football Mental Health Week. World Mental Health Day is October 10. 

The Hilinski’s Hope Foundation is a nonprofit organization that promotes mental health awareness for student-athletes, named after Tyler Hilinski, a Washington State University football player who died by suicide in 2018.

Kym Hilinski, Tyler’s mother, said that she had no idea he was struggling with his mental health. 

“One day he was with us and the next day he was gone, we had no sign,” she said. “So what we thought was that if Tyler was struggling, and was so great at hiding it, how many other student-athletes are out there that are struggling in silence? And we don’t want it to ever get to the level of what happened to Tyler, but even if people are struggling and you’re not thinking about taking your life, that is still such a boulder sitting on your chest that we want to help those people and maybe change and save a life.”

Kelsie Roberts, a sophomore psychology major who plays on the women’s beach volleyball team, said that she’s seen both Wald and Palmateer.  

“When I went to them, it was more to be proactive and just talk through things that are kind of uncomfortable to talk with either coaches or teammates about,” Roberts said. “And they’re just really open and receptive to everything and they’re able to provide insight on how to go back to tackle certain situations, and they’re just really helpful.”

One barrier to accessing mental health treatment can be the stigma of psychological issues, especially related to sports, according to Palmateer.

“I think that there’s a mental health stigma and support-seeking stigma that exists in broader society. And it’s also strengthened at times in the sports world,” Palmateer said. “You hear things like ‘suck it up’, ‘be mentally tough’, those sorts of messaging. I think that that can further stigmatize mental health and seeking support so it’s really just so critical to have resources available to normalize seeking help.”

Wald said that students are accessing services at a higher rate over his tenure at the university.

“I think things have changed over time, at least I like to believe things have changed over time where there’s just less of a stigma,” Wald said. “And I think people are trying to see it more as though if you have an ankle injury, you see an orthopedist for that and you have a mental health or performance issue, then you’ll see a psychologist for that. It’s like a medical issue, just like anything else.”

Roberts said she would tell other student-athletes to be open in regard to their mental health.

“Speak up, it’s okay,” Roberts said. “I feel like that’s something I had to learn the hard way, that if you speak up and ask for help, you’ll be really surprised at how people react.”

Mary Rasura is a Staff Writer for the University Press. For more information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or DM her on Instagram @maryrasura.