CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Physical health is a priority for athletes but mental health can often be stigmatized. University of Illinois Mental Health and Sports Performance program manager Jim Maurer is doing his best to make sure that doesn’t happen to Illini athletes. He’s worked with Illini athletes for seven years and says the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an upswing in athletes that need support.
“They’re people first,” Maurer said. “I think sometimes the community and the public sees them just as athletes, but they’re really people first. They work so hard and train so hard and so to not know if they’re going to have a season, or when they’re going to have a season, they really go through a sense of loss and grief and anger.”
But the Illini don’t have to fight their struggles alone. Even prior to the pandemic, athletic director Josh Whitman has supported several programs to help athletes mentally.
“The beauty of being an athlete at Illinois is that you’re surrounded by people that care about you,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “We’ve all got a void right now, and how can we get through that void together?”
In July, Illinois got involved with the Green Bandana project, a national initiative to support athletes with mental health struggles. Members are trained to recognize a mental health crisis, so they can help their teammates reach out to a professional. They can also wear a Green Bandana on their backpack or clothes, as a symbol of support.
“Mental health can definitely affect an athlete’s performance and it can affect anybody’s performance on their job,” Maurer said. “And that’s why Josh and the coaches are so supportive, because if we can help with their mental health, they can have a good product on the field.”
About 30 to 35 percent of Illini athletes are seen by mental health professionals, according to Maurer, but he says that number could grow, as the pandemic continues.