In many respects, student-athletes are like other students: They may have difficult home lives, histories of mental illness, or face hardship when it comes to paying for school. In other respects, they stand apart. They juggle commitments to their academics, and athletic performance, practice and competition, as well as their social lives. They also frequently have team dynamics, clear leadership roles and strong relationships with other athletes. Recognizing these additional stressors and mitigating factors, Boise State launched BroncoBOLD in 2019.
The program, which was designed to oversee and spotlight Boise State Athletics’ mental health programming available to athletes, coaches and staff. Led by Athletics’ Director of Athletic Performance and Psychology Stephanie Donaldson, it focuses on three areas of operation: reducing stigma, raising awareness and cultivating resilience.
“One of the biggest drives within BroncoBOLD and the programming I provide is normalizing the conversations we have around mental health. If [student-athletes] are able to talk openly about their own mental health struggles, it really creates a feeling of inclusivity. There’s relatability there that helps open people up,” Donaldson said. “Mental health is not just a one-in-five issue. It’s a five-in-five scenario: We all have mental health.”
With its lockdowns and the prevalence of social unrest, the pandemic has cast the problem in a new light. In sports, games, matches and whole seasons may have been postponed or even canceled. People had feelings of isolation, anxiety, grief and uncertainty. Donaldson characterized the shift in attitudes during the pandemic as “incredible — because we want to have these conversations. Before the pandemic it was an us-versus-them, healthy-versus-sick thing; but during the pandemic, a lot happened that made people realize they were struggling with their mental health.”
Donaldson likened it to the way conversations about other forms of unwellness have been normalized. Indeed, the state of the science of mental health suggests that one’s headspace is part of a broader health continuum that includes psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects.