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CPASS graduate student studies how attitudes toward mental illness impact student-athletes

The cultural stigma related to mental illness and those seeking mental health services is pervasive. According to Robert Hilliard, College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology doctoral student, such negative viewpoints pose barriers across race, status, occupation, gender, country of origin and other variables.  

Hilliard has received a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Graduate Student Research Grant to conduct research on key topics by introducing new studies to the field. The grant is offered annually to graduate students studying NCAA student-athletes in the broad areas of well-being and sport participation. Hilliard’s research is titled Stigma, Attitudes, and Intentions to Seek Mental Health Services in Student-Athletes. 

Hilliard’s research examines the role that stigma plays in student-athletes’ attitudes toward seeking help for mental health services. “I’m also investigating which issues student-athletes might be most willing to go seek counseling, as this is not information we currently have,” he said.

 Having been an athlete himself and impacted by the suicide of a teammate, Hilliard says the connection between student-athletes and mental health has always been of personal interest. 

“Student-athletes are unique in the pressures they experience, even if they aren’t participating at the Division I level. The combination of demands to perform and expectations to do well in other areas of their lives can create a fertile ground for needing to seek mental health services,” Hilliard explained. 

Although actual statistics can vary by study, in general, suicide tends to rate as the second or third highest cause of death for student-athletes, says Hilliard. “Approximately one third of student-athletes meet the criteria for anxiety or depression. In a study at one school, more than two thirds of the student-athletes reported poor mental health had impacted their athletic performance in the month leading up to the study,” he said.

“A more representative study found that one third of respondents reported feeling overwhelmed within the last month. Finally, researchers typically find that up to one quarter have reported seeking mental health services at some point in their life,” Hilliard added.

Hilliard, who grew up in Shelby, Michigan, along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, says that exposure to those who have experienced a mental illness or sought treatment is one of the strongest ways to reduce stigma and improve attitudes surrounding the issues.

“The more we can openly discuss the topic, then the more that stigma will continue to be washed away,” he said.

In the past, athletes have been less open to seeking help, due to the masculine norms engrained in sport have considered those individuals to be weak, according to Hilliard. “That has certainly been changing. Now I have found across a couple different samples that the rates of help-seeking in student-athletes is similar to non-athletes,” he said.

Hilliard, who earned his Master of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from WVU in December, credits CPASS faculty for helping him improve as a researcher.

“Dr. Jack Watson, interim associate dean, is my advisor and has been a tremendous influence on my growth throughout my time at WVU. He has supported my research ideas and challenged me to make them better. Additionally, Dr. Sam Zizzi, Dr. Pat Fehl Endowed Professor, played an important role in the crafting of this dissertation project and the grant itself. His feedback throughout dissertation seminar was invaluable. I am a better writer and scholar after having gone through the semester with him,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard has been involved in several scholarly projects that have helped him grow professionally by writing about less familiar topics. “The experience has allowed me to become a better researcher,” he said.

Now that Hilliard has spent a few years living in Morgantown, he remembers the moment he realized that he was meant to be a Mountaineer. “We had our program holiday party after my first year. Some of the professors and students were having a jam session and we started singing Country Roads. It was at that point that it really hit me that this felt like home,” said Hilliard.

As WVU students say following an athletic win, “Cue Country Roads.”

“Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads”

Take Me Home, Country Roads lyrics ©

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