Ohio State head coach Ryan Day speaks to his team prior to a practice on March 6, 2019. Ohio State opened its spring practices on March 6 at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Photo: Colin Gay | Sports Editor

Although the Big Ten just announced the creation of its Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet, Ohio State’s sport psychology department has been working to reach student-athletes at the university since its department doubled to four full-time staff members in August. 

The sport psychology department has used its increased staff to expand its services to more student-athletes. Jamey Houle, Ohio State lead sport psychologist, leads a group that he said is working to increase its visibility in order to reach and help as many student-athletes as possible. 

“It’s really evolved for us to become highly integrated into the holistic treatment of the athletes, and we’ve been really happy with that as we’ve evolved throughout the year,” Houle said.

Along with Houle, the university staff includes sport psychologist Chelsi Day and athletic counselors Charron Sumler and Candice Williams. 

While part of their job is dedicated to the counseling of athletes, Houle said that makes up only 50 percent of the staff’s allotted time. The rest of the time is dedicated to going outside the office in order to increase visibility. 

“One of the things that’s truly changed over time is our access — student-athletes’ access to us, and then also our visibility,” Houle said. “So, we were at many, many more practices this year. We were in team meetings. We were in meetings called athletic performance team meetings that would have coaches, athletic trainers, nutritionists, student-athlete support services.”

The increased exposure has allowed Houle and his staff to combat the stigma around mental health. While there has been plenty of work toward removing the stigma, Day said that it still exists. 

In order to increase the comfortability and trust between athletes and sport psychologists, Day said that it is important to build a foundation of care, and sometimes the best way to do that is to approach it from an athletic perspective. 

“If talking about performance is our in, it also allows us to uncover things that kids maybe haven’t felt comfortable opening up about or they just haven’t been in that space yet,” Day said.

Day said that the athletic component of a student-athlete is intertwined in the complex nature of the person, so it is important to connect with that element in order to reach the whole person. 

Houle estimated that about 20 to 25 percent of student-athletes are coming to see one of the staff members. The statistic is similar to other student-athlete and student populations throughout the country, Houle said. 

“It’s an interesting public health perspective which is like the more you’re out there, the more visible you are, the more you normalize the experience, the more people will come see you,” Houle said.

The athletic trainers have been a crucial medium between athletes and the sport psychology staff, Houle said. 

While he said that there is opportunity for student-athletes to approach the staff members or a coach directly, Houle noted that it’s more commonplace for a player to talk to an athletic trainer, who will then reach out to one of the sport psychologists or athletic counselors. 

While it was still in the process of laying its groundwork, the university’s sport psychology department has been forced to adjust to a unique time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the staff to explore new avenues to engage with student-athletes that are currently spread across the country and world in order to maintain the visibility and exposure that was built up since August. 

Houle said the department is discussing a move toward virtual engagements that include different forms of video meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These conferences vary from individual meetings to team meetings, Houle said. 

Outside of video conferencing, Houle and his staff are looking to build up ways for student-athletes to instantly receive help. Williams noted that the staff has been looking to provide more content through the department’s website and social media.

“We are looking at ways to meet our student-athletes where they are right now,” Williams said. “Over the coming months, we are strategically looking at what that looks like for us and how to best capture what the student-athletes need that they can access at a click of button, outside of the virtual visits they do with us via content through social media.”

In line with efforts to maximize technology, the Big Ten announced May 4 that all student-athletes will receive free access to the Calm app, which aims to improve mental wellness through tools like meditation. 

Despite the unique situation that was initially a cause of much grief for student-athletes that lost out on seasons, Day spoke to the resilience that the athletes have shown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While they’re of course not without issue or challenges or struggles, I think this has really shone a light that they are resilient in so many more ways than we would’ve been able to talk about before, so that’s been really cool to me,” Day said.

This story was updated at 10:12 a.m., Wednesday, May 13, 2020 with staff numbers.