Coordinated care: How Iowa State Athletics has prioritized mental health during COVID-19

Design by Peter Lemken.

Matt Belinson

Stigmatized. Ignored. Misinterpreted. Mental health challenges and conversations have needed time and proper education to reach its state of acceptance today.

And since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, when the world of college sports became upended, postponed or flat-out shut down, those conversations grew even louder when it came to the thousands of athletes across the nation having to face the possibility of their passions and athletic family being ripped away from them.

But even before a global pandemic entered the conversation, Iowa State Athletics worked to meet the need for mental health resources for its athletes, coaches and staff — COVID-19 just made the need that much clearer.

Katie Blair is a prime example.

Serving as Iowa State Athletics’ mental health and educational enrichment coordinator, Blair has over six years of clinical experience along with a Master of Science degree in mental health counseling from Drake University. 

Blair’s focus has always been driven by developing a network of care for student athletes.

The care that Blair and the rest of the Iowa State sports medicine team provide is treated like a conversation and a connection with each athlete, not an interrogation to find out what could be bothering an athlete.

And with all of the sports at Iowa State having to adjust to new struggles and setbacks over the last academic year, Blair has made it her mission to be available at a time when athletes have needed it most.

“Being authentically available is always a priority for me,” Blair said. 

It starts with a unique approach of specialized, individually tailored mental health services coming together in what Iowa State staff calls coordinated care.

 “We believe in our model of specified, coordinated care.”

Working in the Iowa State athletic department since 1993 and in his current position since 1999, Mark Coberley has been the head of this critical program of coordinated care at Iowa State.

But why take this approach?

Coberley said Iowa State had identified about five to seven years ago that mental health care was increasing in its scope and responsibilities, leaving Iowa State in a position to adapt or get left behind. The Cyclones chose the former.

Coordinated care is all about bringing mental health resources to each student athlete on an individual basis and connecting all the resources they might need in one centralized network.

Not every athlete needs to talk to a counselor. But maybe some do. Perhaps someone needs to take time off from their busy schedule. No matter the situation, it’s all different experiences, and Iowa State has tried to match that with specified plans of action. 

In the past, whether it be specific to college athletics or mental health care in general, Coberley said disconnected approaches to mental health care has left a lot of care left up to the person in need of help to find it themselves.

In some cases where this approach wasn’t adopted, athletes would all receive similar training, no matter the circumstances, and talk with the same line of preselected professionals.

Iowa State wanted to come with a different approach.

“It’s really important for everybody, obviously with the additional stresses with student-athletes and their seasons, a lot of that plays on you mentally,” Coberley said.

Having to deal with numerous agencies, being handed off to different professionals, setting up jumbled appointments and receiving varying instructions might be a tall order for some to deal with, which is what makes the plan of coordinated care so efficient.

Through clear communication between government agencies and health care professionals, Iowa State staff has helped give student athletes the tools they need, not what history and old teachings might say. By partnering directly with potential resources and creating a centralized process, student-athletes receive quicker solutions they need to approach their mental health situation.

Everyone’s story is different, and so must be the mental health care each Cyclone receives.

Charles Small, senior associate director of athletics and student services, believes in that philosophy and has been proud to see Iowa State Athletics evolve and respond before and during COVID-19.

This model of coordinated care isn’t unique to the Cyclone support staff by any means, but Small said Iowa State has been building toward this model for some time now and was glad to see staff and partners were prepared once the challenges of COVID-19 took effect.

Iowa State’s sports medicine staff has worked at fitting each situation with specific solutions, not one-size-fits-all solutions to such a serious topic like mental health.

“We embrace this idea of holistic approaches; these athletes have multiple aspects to their needs and identity and we need to have resources for all of them,” Small said. “Overall, there is a need [for coordinated care] because mental health will always be a vital part of our student-athletes’ experience.”

That’s where Blair comes into the picture. Iowa State wanted to create a coordinator position to handle the mental aspect of collegiate athletics, preferably someone with a counseling background.

Blair was the perfect fit to be a key member of the coordinated care system. 

“[Blair] has done an amazing job and has continued to lead our student-athletes through any situation they need assistance in,” Small said.

For each individual athlete, Iowa State has worked to do intake and make sure they get resources they need. Throughout this streamlined process, Iowa State has been able to track student-athletes’ progression in their respective mental health journeys. 

And while Small is a believer in Iowa State’s approach toward mental health care, he isn’t saying other schools don’t do effective work. Every program has its own philosophy and no one way of doing things is wrong.

With that said, Iowa State’s path of coordinated care has been a win for the staff who oversee it.

“We believe in our model of specified, coordinated care,” Small said. 

“It really takes a toll on players mentally, and I want you all to understand that.”

Before a 9-3 season, historic wins and a national spotlight like never before in the 2020 football season, Matt Campbell offered his respect.

The sixth-year head coach of the Cyclones stood at the Bergstrom Football Complex speaking to the media over Zoom on Aug. 21 as the Cyclones prepared for their season opener against Louisiana on Sept. 12.

At this time during the pandemic, discussions of pushing back the football season or even canceling the year altogether were still in the back of the minds of decision-makers across college sports.

“When you talk about the challenges at hand, the world looks at our players as football players and puts them on a pedestal,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately, what they lack to see is these are 18- to 22-year-old young men. They are growing from a young man into a man, and they didn’t sign up for the challenges at hand, but they’re forced really to respond to the challenges at hand. And I think if you are attacking this any other way but from the health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes, then you’re wrong. Every young player got my utmost respect because I think what these young men have gone through, to be honest with you, just the mental anguish that this challenge has put on their shoulders, I’ve got the greatest amount of respect for any of our young men.”

In that same press conference last fall, Iowa State tight end Chase Allen spoke candidly about the mental side of college athletics and the uncertainty leading up to the challenges of a COVID-19 football season.

Sports are an escape back to reality for many college athletes, and with the real possibility of that being taken away, Allen said mental health was brought up amongst the team during the summer and early fall.

Luckily, Allen said he and his teammates stayed in constant communication with Blair and the sports medicine staff, even through the challenges of being apart during the spring and summer.

“They did a great job reaching out to us while we were at home and were making sure we stayed up to date on that,” Allen said.

Mental health conversations continued through the fall and showed impact during the men’s basketball season as well, a year that was defined by losses and COVID-19 setbacks.

After the Cyclones fell 81-67 to Texas on March 2 at Hilton Coliseum, junior forward George Conditt IV made clear what the mental weight of playing through unprecedented adversity on and off the court was like for student-athletes.

“With everything that’s happening with COVID, it really takes a toll on players mentally, and I want you all to understand that,” Conditt said March 2.

Conditt often mentioned during the 2020-21 season that his struggles on the court stemmed from mental battles with himself, resulting in self-doubt and a lack of motivation at times.

After the Cyclones’ loss at the hands of Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State on Feb. 16, Conditt offered an apology to fans for his admitted lack of energy and spirit in the beginning of the season.

It took time, but Conditt said he turned around his mental approach on the court.

“I’ve gotten happy. I’m happy,” Conditt said postgame Feb. 16. “It took me a while, and I apologize to Cyclone Nation for that, but I’m playing happy. I’m playing free.”

“A lot of people don’t ask out for help.”

The American Psychiatric Association estimated that in 2017, one in five adults were impacted by their mental health conditions — close to 47 million Americans. Yet up until the last decade, discussions around mental health were centered around being “weak” or potentially “harmful” to those around you. 

According to the Roper Center, a 1996 survey from the National Mental Health Association showed that 54 percent of Americans considered “depression as a sign of personal or emotional weakness.”

Coberley said thankfully, education and a rise in media coverage on the topic of mental health has led to a respect of the topic and a full-on investment in college programs.

“It’s a lot more accepted,” Coberley said. “People aren’t as quiet as they used to be about it.”

For someone who’s been inside the Iowa State Athletics and football program since 2016, Allen has seen national attention toward mental health grow in the minds of Iowa State student-athletes.

As former president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, Allen said he and other athletes made it a priority to meet with coaches, fellow student-athletes and university leadership to discuss mental health resources and questions. 

With the arrival of Blair in 2019, Allen has felt her impact and willingness to connect with players on issues that have long been stigmatized.

“A lot of people don’t ask out for help,” Allen said. “[Blair] does a great job of getting people’s guards down and getting them to open up about things that are tough to talk about right now.” 

For Blair, it’s nice to hear her work has made an impact on student-athletes, especially with Iowa State wanting to make mental health work a personal-growth journey and not just a wash-rinse-repeat appointment.

When it comes to breaking the stigma around mental health, Blair said it all comes back to people’s willingness to learn and have honest conversations with their loved ones.

Blair has worked to have those connections, and her genuine care for student-athletes has made her proud that student-athletes like Allen have appreciated her work. After all, that’s been the mission of Iowa State Athletics when it comes to mental health.

“To hear that is really encouraging because that’s what I want to be creating for them,” Blair said.