Student-Athlete Mental Health Issues and NCAA Medical Hardship Waivers

Over the last few years, there has been much more attention and awareness on the subject of mental health issues that impact student-athletes.

Based on some of the questions raised and concerns being expressed by families we speak with, two points about mental health concerns are the most commonly discussed:

  • Student-athletes, especially male student-athletes and even more for those in contact sports, are reluctant to reveal mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.
  • For those student-athletes who choose to reveal their mental health concerns, some coaches respond as if they don’t want to hear it, or they take some kind of action which only makes the student-athlete feel worse, such as isolating them from the rest of the team, or telling them “maybe you’re not cut out for college athletics at this level.”

What we are seeing is a pattern of athletes who missed a season of competition because of poor performance related to depression, anxiety, etc. and then when they try to get that season “over again” through a hardship waiver, it isn’t approved. That’s because at the time they were dealing with their issues, they didn’t want to divulge a “weakness” to their coaches or athletic trainers and therefore they don’t have the required documentation of a “season-ending” mental illness.

The Importance of Medical Documentation for Mental Health Issues When Applying for a Medical Hardship Waiver

If a student-athlete is hoping to receive a “medical redshirt” (or what is officially called a Medical Hardship Waiver) in order to get a season of competition “over again” for limited participation, the proper documentation will be even more important than it is when a physical injury is involved.

As we all can understand, if an athlete has undergone Tommy John surgery or has had a torn ACL, there will usually be sufficient medical documentation to support a request for a Medical Hardship Waiver.

However, a student-athlete dealing with mental health concerns like anxiety or depression may not have revealed to their medical professional that it is severely impacting their ability to perform at the level that they need to.

Or, even if they have shared this with their medical professional, the student-athlete may be reluctant to share a note from their doctor with the coaching staff that they should be withheld from competition.

I certainly understand that when a student-athlete is dealing with a mental health issue the last thing on their mind is probably whether they will have an extra season of eligibility later on in their college career.

But for families who may be dealing with such a situation, it can be important to share with the doctor/therapist how the mental health issue is impacting their athlete.

If the student-athlete doesn’t think they can continue through the rest of their season at their best, they should consider asking whether the doctor or therapist believes that their situation is serious enough to be considered “incapacitating” or “season-ending” in its severity. If so, it may help them to gain back a season later on if the student-athlete’s situation meets the other criteria for a hardship waiver.

As stated in the NCAA guidelines for a Medical Hardship Waiver:

“Contemporaneous medical documentation from a physician or medical doctor that establishes the student-athlete’s inability to compete for the remainder of the playing season as a result of an injury or illness shall be submitted with any hardship-waiver request…..For circumstances involving psychological or mental illnesses, the required contemporaneous or other appropriate medical documentation may be provided by an individual who is qualified and licensed to diagnose and treat the particular illness (e.g., psychologist).”

Do you Have Questions?

If your student-athlete is struggling in their sport because of mental health issues, we can help. In a confidential Waivers & Appeals Consultation, we’ll discuss your student-athlete’s situation and inform you if they meet the criteria for a Medical Hardship Waiver. We can also advise on how best to navigate through the Medical Hardship Waiver process and assist with things like helping you write or edit your personal statement, and reviewing your medical documentation.

Schedule your confidential Waivers & Appeals Consult online or by sending an email to or calling us at 913-766-1235.