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Keep Your Head in the Game

January 25, 2024

Athletics staff psychologist supports student-athlete wellness

Dr. Rachel Turk

The number of student-athletes reporting mental health concerns is nearly two times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2022 NCAA student-athlete well-being study. UR is committed to creating and maintaining a culture of well-being across campus, especially for student-athletes, who can be more susceptible to elevated rates of mental exhaustion and anxiety.
A staff member of UR’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Dr. Rachel Turk became the athletic department’s first-ever full-time staff psychologist in 2019. Prior to her arrival on campus, less than 11 percent of student-athletes sought out mental health support services. Now, that percentage averages between 30 to 35 annually, she said.
“I think a lot of people see student-athletes as a very privileged student population,” said Turk, who played volleyball at Lynchburg College. “But student-athletes can face more barriers to well-being than traditional students. In addition to their weekly course load, they also have 20 hours of physical activity and training for their sport, team meetings, weekend games, and more. And that’s not including the pressure to perform and media spotlight.”
Turk added that because of their rigorous schedules, student-athletes can develop high-functioning anxiety and depression in which symptoms are not easily recognizable.
“These students don’t have the option of staying in bed or not going to practice,” she said. “They have to get there even if they don’t feel mentally able. And they can’t just quit; it’s often a critical part of their identity, and for some, it’s the only way they can afford college.”
To help student-athletes overcome these challenges, Turk creates custom counseling plans for each student that teach stress management and coping techniques and encourage independence and self-reliance. Each plan also outlines how often the student should see Turk and for how long, based on the student’s availability for most convenience. On average, she sees between 20 and 30 student-athletes for 30 minutes to an hour each week.
In addition to one-on-one counseling sessions, Turk facilitates Mental Health 101 preventative training for each athletic team at the beginning of the school year that outlines signs and symptoms of mental illness and lists available resources on campus. She also provides annual mental health education and training to coaches and athletics staff.
Donor support of CAPS and athletics special events and programs, such as monthly Wellness Wednesday events and community guest speakers, helps Turk and her colleagues promote the holistic well-being of all student-athletes. Turk is also assisted by graduate student trainees, whose funding is entirely covered by donor generosity.
“Having trainees not only creates a very rare training opportunity in a subspecialty that is currently experiencing a provider shortage, but also creates space for between 15 to 20 additional weekly appointments for student-athletes,” Turk said. “There is no way we could meet the current need without these positions.”
“It’s been amazing to see how our donors have given us the ability to make a larger impact. The more we’re having conversations about mental health, the more progress we’re making. We are so appreciative of those who are willing to support us.”

MAKING AN IMPACT: UR Athletics Alumni

Michael Childress, ’23 - Men’s Golf
“Dr. Turk made the biggest impact on me by helping me understand the patterns my mind falls into day-to-day when dealing with the challenges of being a student-athlete. Through my work with Dr. Turk, I feel more informed, present, and happy. I encourage anyone who is considering meeting with her to take advantage of her expertise and feedback.”

Maddy Chao, ’20 - Women’s Swimming & Diving
“I worked with Dr. Turk on sports-related anxiety issues, and she helped me get through my final season. I think it’s so important that there are mental health workers available for everyone on campus, especially student-athletes because there’s a stigma around athletes getting help. Having Dr. Turk on campus helps breaks down that stigma.”

Kobie Turner, ’22 - Football
“I really felt the need and impact of Dr. Turk’s work during the 2019 football season. She spoke with our team about building confidence, goal setting, and managing expectations. I started the year not feeling very confident, but with the tools Dr. Turk gave us, I gained a mental edge going into the season. It led me to having one of my best seasons ever.”

Mekenzie Montgomery, '21 - Women’s Lacrosse
“After losing a fellow student-athlete to suicide in 2018, our community became much more aware of the impact of mental health. Dr. Turk ran a workshop to educate our team about unhealthy relationship signs. As a result, we were better able to support one another and individuals in our friend groups.”