Well-being reflects both the level of mental health and engagement in risky behaviors among NCAA student-athletes. Mental health reflects the level of depressive symptoms experienced during one week, such as how many days in a week student-athletes feel lonely and feel that everyday tasks take much effort. Risky behaviors reflect the frequency with which student-athletes take part in dangerous drinking, drug use, and sexual behaviors.

In his 2016 “State of the Association” address, NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert cited well-being as one of the three focal priorities for the NCAA’s future governance. Promoting positive well-being is therefore a key student-athlete outcome, especially because our research shows that nearly eight in ten student-athletes report experiencing depressive symptoms one or two days a week. This finding, while slightly worrisome, aligns with the general college student population. The National 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Arnett who is a co-investigator on this project, found that 36% of 18-21 year-olds agree they often feel depressed. Importantly, 83% also agree that their life is currently fun and exciting but full of changes. It is important to remember that mixed emotions commonly accompany the college transition, and that while student-athletes are eager to begin their intercollegiate experience, they also encounter new bumps along the way.

Across NCAA Divisions, as many as four in ten student-athletes engage in low levels of risky behaviors once a month. While this may seem like a large proportion, the general college student population engages in higher levels. For example, a recent nationwide survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that six in ten college students drank alcohol in the past month and nearly 70% of these engaged in binge drinking (4-5 drinks on one occasion) in the same timeframe. In comparison, our data suggest that only 12% of student-athletes binge drink once a month and confirm that the overwhelming majority (65%) do not binge drink at all.

Together, the well-being of student-athletes across NCAA Divisions conveys a normative picture of the highs and lows of the college experience. Key NCAA stakeholders acknowledge these common experiences and challenges faced by student-athletes, and largely these individuals agree that parents play a key role in promoting positive well-being during the transition to college.

“I get that it’s frustrating as a parent watching the games … but I’ve seen kids beat up mentally by their parents. I think it’s good when parents are fans, but I know that student-athletes are under a lot of pressure. I just try to watch the things that I say and make them feel like they have a chance with something.”

Quick Facts

  • Examples of well-being include both the level of mental health and engagement in risky behaviors among student-athletes.
  • About 31% of NCAA student-athletes feel lonely a few days a week.
  • About 12% of NCAA student-athletes binge drink (4-5 drinks on one occasion) once or more a month.
  • Key NCAA stakeholders highlight the importance of helping student-athletes cope with the normative highs and lows of the college experience.

Study Partners