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Mental health training for youth coaches draws partisan divide in Pa. House

Patriot-News - 6/19/2024

Andrew Erby, the athletic director at Steelton-Highspire High School, requires his coaches to participate in a mentorship program for students. Erby’s coaches ask their student-athletes about their personal and home lives, helping them identify possible mental health struggles.

“Athletics isn’t necessarily about wins and losses at the end of the day,” said, Erby, also head football coach at the school. “It’s about making kids better people.”

A bill that narrowly (102-100) passed the House last week could mandate statewide much of what Steelton-Highspire already does.

The bill would require the Board of Education to review and revise if needed existing state standards for health and safety to address student mental health. The departments of education and health would jointly develop a model curriculum and list of educational materials for schools to provide mental health awareness training and schools would be required to notify students’ parents, athletic staff and extracurricular advisors of mental health services available.

In addition, if a student is injured or suddenly stops participation in sports or other extracurricular activity that student’s parents would be provided information on mental health services.

The bill’s introduction comes as more high profile athletes, such as Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka, who temporarily stepped away from their sports to protect their mental health, have spoken publicly about the issues around athletes and mental health.

While ensuring the mental well-being of young people is broadly popular, the idea of mandatory mental health training for coaches has not been warmly received by all.

“A lot of people that I’ve coached with, coached against, have left coaching because of all of the mandated training,” said Justin Sheaffer, the boys soccer coach at Camp Hill High School. “It’s tough to find good coaches who care about kids and then make them jump through a ton of hoops and continue to add hoops.”

Sheaffer, named coach of the year by the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association in 2023, said he is “on the fence” about the legislation. He wrestles with striking the right balance between spending time with student-athletes and earning certifications ostensibly designed to help student-athletes.

“At the end of the day, our focus should be on kids,” Sheaffer said.

Sheaffer’s sentiment was echoed by House Republicans, all of whom voted against the bill.

“How much training are they going to need to be able to handle this?” Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana County, asked about the myriad mental health issues faced by students.

Struzzi, who is a co-chair of the bipartisan House Mental Health Caucus, also took issue with the bill’s lack of a cost estimate, as did other House Republicans. An analysis by the House Appropriations Committee estimated a minimum of $254,000 to cover salaries and operational costs associated with the creation of a mental health curriculum for coaches working with student-athletes.

The analysis also noted the staff tasked with creating the curriculum “are already at or near workload capacity,” though “the scope of this work can be absorbed.”

Rep. Michael Schlossberg, a Lehigh County Democrat and a co-chair of the Mental Health Caucus, did not take issue with the potential costs of an expanded mental health program.

“Any money spent on mental health [problem] prevention means that we don’t have to spend five times as much on mental health treatment,” Schlossberg said. He added that equipping coaches with the ability to identify and manage mental health concerns would “ultimately improve the lives and potentially save lives of kids who are deeply vulnerable.”

Individual schools and school districts currently have varying approaches to training coaches on students’ mental health. Sheaffer, the soccer coach, said that he primarily uses the mental health training he receives as a teacher in the Camp Hill School District.

“The coaches that are not inside the district, they don’t sit through the trainings that the district does for teachers,” he said. Sheaffer noted that the athletic director brought the district’s coaches together once to study programs at universities.

Erby said he is in favor of the training being mandated statewide. He said he would want such training to “help give an understanding to coaches what mental illness looks like, but also after what it looks like, how to equip us with tools and interactions to deal with it.”

“Okay, we learned about it. We identified it. Now, what’s the next step?” Erby said.

Sheaffer said that if he were required to take mental health training, he’d want to be shown how to identify mental struggles.

“I would hope that it would remind all coaches that every kid’s different,” he said, noting that where one student-athlete may be struggling, another may be trying to get a rise out of others.

A father, Sheaffer said he is already confident in his fellow coaches’ abilities to look after their burgeoning student-athletes.

“Everyone that my kids work with cares about kids,” he said. “At the end of the day, you can’t ask for more as a parent.”

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