Bree Holtz and team receive funding from NCAA to address the stigma surrounding mental health in student athletics

Starting June 1, Associate Professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations Bree Holtz along with a team of researchers from University of Alabama will begin their year-long research project to understand the mental health pressures student-athletes face and the barriers they encounter when trying to access support. “Interactive Narratives for Mental Health: Sharing Stories of Success” was awarded a $25,000 grant from the National Collegiate Athletic Association for their annual NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program that aims to fund research teams who conduct studies that enhance student-athletes' psychosocial well-being.

Holtz, along with her fellow researchers Associate Professor Scott Parrott and Assistant Professor Shaheen Kanthawala of the College of Communication and Information Sciences at University of Alabama, have been working together on student mental health issues and ways that technology can help for the past two years.

There were about 80 applicants that submitted projects to the NCAA, with only 15 finalists. Of these finalists, Holtz, Parrott and Kanthawala were one of the four teams awarded the grant.

As a whole, Holtz, Parrott and Kanthawala’s work and research mainly focuses on media effects, mental health in the media and health technology.

However, Holtz has also focused her research specifically on the adoption, perceptions and outcomes of telemedicine, mobile phone health apps, consumer grade sensors (i.e., Fitbit, Apple Watch, etc.), electronic medical records, artificial intelligence and social media for health topics. Her overall goal in her work is to improve health outcomes and individuals’ quality of life.

For this funded research project, the team aims to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health among student-athletes by developing interactive narratives, or serious games. Serious games are a subgenre of serious storytelling that is applied outside of the context of entertainment and is often used as an educational application for the purpose of providing information in a thoughtful and fun way.

“These narratives will be designed in collaboration with student-athletes and will provide guidance for navigating mental health challenges,” said Holtz. “Through focus groups, universal stories concerning mental health and sport will be identified. An artistic team will then create animated stories where student-athletes make choices to guide a character through a mental health-related plot.”

The study will be conducted through three stages. The first stage will consist of interacting with focus groups of student-athletes from Michigan State University and University of Alabama. These focus groups are meant to create a space where student-athletes can share their concerns and specific needs when it comes to mental well-being.

Parrott shares that one specific task the team will have the student-athletes complete is creating a storyboard to describe their individual stories with mental health. This will lead to the second stage where a creative team will create interactive narratives based on the information gathered from the focus groups. Student-athletes will also play a part in evaluating the various narratives provided, ultimately narrowing them down to make three to five serious games.

“We have partnered with talented artists who will use the brainstorming sessions as a springboard to create interactive stories,” said Parrott. “These stories will be shared with the NCAA and its member institutions.”

The final stage will involve website design and distribution of the narratives. This website will host and share these serious games and will be provided to various institutions to make these resources easily accessible for people.

The team’s overall goal for this research project is to utilize technology (smart phones, apps, social media, etc.) to improve mental health knowledge and behavior among student-athletes while promoting a supportive environment that encourages health seeking and open discussions about mental health.

“We’re interested in learning about student-athletes' attitudes toward mental health, and how we might improve their desire to talk about mental health, pursue help when they need it, and be able to help friends who face struggles,” said Parrott.

With the creation of these serious games, the research team hopes to see an improvement in the ways conversations and behaviors around mental health are approached in sports communities, reducing pressures student-athletes' deal with on a day-to-day basis.

“We recognize that the pressures and challenges they face, both in their personal lives and on the field, can be overwhelming,” said Holtz. “By focusing on mental health support, our project aims to provide valuable resources and guidance that can make a difference in the lives of student-athletes.”

The team will have until May 2024 to conduct their research and complete their serious games. Holtz and her collaborators are looking forward to getting started and creating meaningful resources for all who need them. Holtz points out that the development of this project couldn’t have happened without the help of her collaborators and colleagues at MSU.

“I would like to express my gratitude to the Athletic Department for their unwavering support throughout this process. Without the collaboration, guidance, and resources provided by Ashton Henderson (executive associate athletic director), Alan Haller (athletic director) and Ebony Clark (deputy athletic director), this achievement would not have been possible. Their commitment to the well-being of student-athletes has been instrumental in shaping our project and ensuring its success.”

By Casey Halas