Jeni Shannon’s work with athletes at UNC highlights the importance of mental health resources

Growing research supports the importance of sports psychology, especially in schools and sports programs with high performance expectations.

At UNC, the Power Five school that holds each team to the standard of national competition, creating mental health programs for athletes is critical to their overall well-being.

Jenny Shannon, director of the Carolinas Athletics Mental Health and Performance Psychology Program, is one of three full-time providers at the University of North Carolina and is a pioneer in the department’s athletic approach to sports psychology. Shannon, along with Brendan Carr and Bradley Hack, is developing programs to help address mental illness within the UNC athletic community.

When Shannon was a sophomore in high school, an injury at the end of her career pulled her out of the world of competitive gymnastics and into coaching. An undergraduate course at the University of Arizona called “Psychology of Excellence” introduced her to the field of sports psychology, and noted its importance through her own experience in sports and her time with players.

While Shannon recognizes that UNU provides an “exciting sporting culture to be a part of,” she also recognizes the impact of high sporting expectations coupled with academic rigor.

“I think the other side of it can be (that) a lot of pressure and you’re very public sometimes,” Shannon said. “There are so many expectations. It’s a tough life, it really is.”

The impact of Shannon and her colleagues’ work in the sports space reveals a key oversight in the field of sports medicine when it comes to mental health, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prominent volleyball player Parker Austin saw life as a UNC athlete before and after COVID-19, and said being an athlete during the pandemic was an isolated experience.

“It’s a never-ending cycle of getting up, working out, going to training, coming home, showering and going to bed,” Austin said. “It’s just this chronic cycle where you get stuck and don’t leave your room, and you can’t see other people. It affected me so badly.”

AMP has grown exponentially in the past few years, expanding from one to three full-time providers. According to Shannon, the majority of the work she and her colleagues do involves interacting with athletes individually, but there are also several new initiatives aimed at stimulating more peer leadership within the sports teams themselves.

Karen Shelton, UNCC’s principal hockey coach, said Shannon’s work with her team has been “fantastic.”

Shannon hosts weekly 30-minute meetings with the team, providing a safe space to discuss topics such as athletic performance and social and team issues.

“It gives everyone a role on the team,” Shelton said. “No matter where you are, you have a voice. I think that’s one of the most important things, but also performance. If you’re not playing a good game, having a gadget or something you can think of can pull you back in.”

Shannon works directly with a number of UNC sports teams through sessions, outreach and programming. She says there is also a new focus on training coaches so they can be better equipped when mental health issues arise within their teams.

Another major aspect of integrating sports psychology into the University of North Carolina’s Department of Sports Medicine is the effort to destigmatize the discussion around performance and stress issues.

“Mental health is health,” Shannon said. “It’s not separate from, it’s just a part of your health. I think one of the most important things we can do is treat it just like we do physical health. Ask coaches to mention it and talk about it. Ask athletic trainers and team doctors to check mental health as well as health Make the athletes want to talk to each other about it.”

By ensuring that players are comfortable discussing mental health issues with coaching staff and their peers, Shannon and her team can collectively develop a safer space for athletes at UNC.

As AMP grows, three full-time providers may not be suitable for a large number of athletes. Some have expressed concerns that the number of providers is not commensurate with the growing demand for mental health services.

“It is wonderful to see the leadership of the United Nations as a whole begin to remove the stigma of mental health,” said UNU Women’s Football Volunteer and Junior Assistant Maddie Bray. “We are having more conversations about it and encouraging people to get help. But again we have three full-time sports psychologists for more than 800 athletes, which of course is going to create waiting lists.”

However, the presence of such an extensive waiting list highlights the importance of Shannon’s work in the UN leadership sports community, and shows that AMP is a program UNC must continue to develop.

“Their impact on athletes, now and excluded and future athletes, is going to be enormous,” Austin said. “I’m excited to see how he continues to grow and how he can continue to help students because it really is so important.”

Shelby Swanson contributed reporting for this story.

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