Jessica McGee / NCAA
She peers over a half wall six floors up and stares at a sea of concrete below. She’s unfazed by the few midshipmen who pass through the outdoor breezeway that connects two wings of the U.S. Naval Academy’s iconic Bancroft Hall.
A familiar voice — one she thought she had left behind in Ghana — has crept in and brought her here. It says she is not good enough, that she doesn’t deserve to be in a place where other students devote themselves to the country they love. She came here to give back to a nation that gave her a family and the mother she had longed for. But in this moment, she cannot even love herself.
The voice inside Amanda Agana prods with questions. Are her company mates taking advantage of her? What about her teammates on the track and field team or her family back in Arkansas? Are they using her only for their own good, just like she’s been used before? Other than the scars on her legs that show when she wears track shorts, she reveals little, protecting others from her story and Amanda from herself.
Yet on this night during her sophomore year, Amanda feels the weight of her story. She doesn’t deserve a happy life, she tells herself, or even life. Will anyone even miss her?
She leans forward, thinking only good can come from her absence in this world. She doesn’t notice that a fellow midshipman has spotted her here and stopped on the breezeway of the nation’s largest student dormitory, a building that houses thousands of students planning the start of their lives. The midshipman finds Amanda as she is plotting the end of hers.
He grabs her shirt, pulling her back and breaking her focus on the concrete slab. He hugs her tightly. “You matter to me,” he tells her.
After her friend pulled her off the breezeway, he took her to a campus chaplain, who found her a spot at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where Amanda spent a week receiving treatment for her suicide attempt.
Amanda’s healing wasn’t over when she returned to Navy, but even though she wasn’t yet ready to ask for help, the school answered her call.
Around the country, higher education institutions — and athletics departments, in particular — are recognizing the need to provide mental health services to help college students manage the transition to adulthood. For some college athletes, balancing the pressures of life, education and competition can heighten the risk of anxiety and depression. Others, like Amanda, arrive on campus carrying emotional wounds that have little to do with the college experience but can be exacerbated by it.
Those efforts can save lives — even the life of a young woman contemplating the concrete below.
Her mother’s death in Ghana began a bleak period in Amanda Agana’s life. “I felt more alone than I’d ever felt in my life,” she says. Submitted by Carol Agana
Amanda recalls scant details from Zaare, the Ghanaian village of her childhood. She remembers the dry air and racing home from school, eager to tell her mother about her day. Her mother, Berta, would have a meal waiting for her daughter each day. Amanda still can smell the aroma of rice balls and groundnut soup waiting for her on her mother’s stove.
Amanda’s parents were separated. Her father, John, had begun caring for the children of his brother and sister, who had both died. John had a household full of responsibilities, so Amanda clung tightly to Berta, who even nursed Amanda back to health during a bout with malaria.
“She was the kindest person. She was just a good, beautiful person,” Amanda recalls. “She was smart. ... She was everything you would want in a mother, and she could cook like no other.”
But then Berta became sick herself. When Amanda was 8 years old, her mother died.
It was my first time being hugged by someone that wasn’t my mom.” Amanda Agana
“I never once felt anything but joy when I was with her,” Amanda recalls. “So when she died, I felt as though all the light had been taken out of my life.”
With her mother gone, Amanda moved in with her father and the other children in his care. But John was a busy man who traveled to sell baskets and other goods to provide for his family, and despite the crowded household, Amanda was lonely. She wanted a mother.
She asked her father if she could live with her mother’s sister, an aunt she had met a couple of times when her mother was alive.
John knew little of this aunt, but his daughter was persistent. He understood how she pined for a mother. Eventually he allowed Amanda to move to her aunt’s home.
There, Amanda had a mother again. Each night after dinner, the two would reminisce about Amanda’s mother. “Oh, you’re so much like her,” her aunt would say. “You smile just like her.”
Yet after a few weeks with her new family, Amanda noticed a swift change in her aunt’s behavior. Happy memories and subtle references to Amanda being like her mother changed to an insistence that the little girl was a sinner whose mother would be disappointed in her.
The aunt started waking Amanda at 6 a.m. to help with breakfast before school. Over time, 6 a.m. became 5 a.m., and then 4 a.m. Amanda’s responsibilities swelled to include sweeping and cooking. As the aunt’s demands increased, they were joined by abuse, both verbal lashings and physical beatings. Amanda no longer felt like she had a future beyond serving her aunt’s family. She dropped out of school.
“I honestly believed that serving my aunt and doing everything that she told me to do, taking the abuse, was a way that I could repent in God’s eyes,” Amanda recalls. “I didn’t want to complain about it because I felt like disobeying her would be disobeying God’s punishment for me.”
For three years Amanda continued to live with her aunt, and the abuse was part of her life. After each argument and beating, Amanda would race nearly 2 miles away from the home to seek solace at the roots of a large mango tree that was surrounded by fields of watermelon and sugar cane. Those dark moments in the savanna were the first times Amanda turned to running as a haven.
She would sit, surrounded by sugar cane, and break off a piece of the plant’s prickly stem, pull away at the rind and begin to chew.
The rush of sugar would hit her as tears streamed down her cheeks.
When Amanda met Carol Agana, she was wary at first that her stepmother’s friendliness wouldn’t last. But Carol showed patience with Amanda and her cousin, Gifty, who was adopted by the Aganas. Carol also began teaching the girls to read. Submitted by Carol Agana
Before the summer of Amanda’s 11th birthday, John and a visitor arrived to see her.
Amanda had never seen anyone like the woman who emerged from the car with her father: She had hair the color of pineapple, pale skin and eyes as blue as the sky. The woman wore a white shirt, loose pants and Crocs.
But the woman’s smile annoyed Amanda. Why is this woman smiling? she thought. No one could be this happy to be alive.
Carol Agana, her father’s new wife, grabbed Amanda and hugged her.
Amanda resisted. Covered in dirt and raggedy from her chores, she feared she would ruin Carol’s shirt and prompt Carol to beat her. “It was my first time being hugged by someone that wasn’t my mom,” Amanda recalls. “You know, truly hugged, that someone was happy to see me. That my presence in the world brought joy.”
Carol, a nursing professor at Arkansas, met John after reaching out to purchase baskets from him. Their business-related emails soon turned into Carol asking a few general questions about Ghana and where the baskets were made. They also communicated about their families and learned they both had daughters named Amanda.
The exchanges grew into a friendship, and when John came to the United States for a conference, he asked Carol if they could meet. After some initial reluctance, Carol agreed, and John folded a visit to Arkansas into his trip. Several months later Carol visited him in Ghana.
Soon, the two were married, which beget a series of changes in Amanda’s life that had the potential to make her whole again: They retrieved her from her aunt’s house and brought her home to Zaare, then sought permission for her to move to the United States. At age 12, when she made the abrupt move into a new family, a new country and culture weren’t the only things Amanda had to adapt to.
For the first year Amanda did not smile. She lived in anticipation that Carol would change and become angry and abusive. After each meal, Amanda feared she might not be fed again and hid food in her room. What does this woman want from me? Amanda wondered. Why is she using me? Carol remained patient and kind. She encouraged Amanda and told her she was beautiful and strong. Slowly, Amanda began to trust her new mom and started looking to Carol for guidance.
It was Carol who first helped Amanda see promise in a talent Amanda had forged under the direst circumstances, when she would run miles to find solitude among the sugar cane stalks. Carol’s suggestion: Amanda should join the middle school track team.
On the cross country and track teams, Amanda outran all her classmates. In high school, she earned all-state honors in cross country and track and field and led the team to multiple state championship titles, two in track and field and one in cross country.
When Amanda was recruited to run track at several universities, one recruitment letter stood out to Carol, whose family members had served in the military. The recruitment letter was from Navy.
She knew her daughter’s heart and understood Amanda’s greatest desire was to help people. Her dream was to attend Arkansas and run for Ghana in the Olympics. One day, Amanda hoped, she could start a school for girls in her Ghanaian village.
Carol had questions for Amanda. Did she need running to be the path that led her to help people, or was the idea of serving other people what mattered to Amanda?
“I realized that running was my way of escaping the pain I had, but it’s not everyone’s way,” Amanda says. “What I really wanted to do was give people the tools so they could use them to better themselves and their situation. I just want to help people. I just want to make people better.”
And as Amanda mulled over the opportunities her life in the United States had allowed her, her college choice became clear.
“I just want to give back to this country, which gave me life,” Amanda says. “I was living in Ghana, but I wasn’t truly alive. I was an empty shell of a person when I was living in Ghana. I had no ambitions, no goals. I realized here that for the first time in my life, I could make a choice.
“I wanted a track career, but I wanted a life career more,” Amanda continues. “I get to say that I served the American people. And for me that is better than anything I can possibly think of.”
When Amanda moved to the U.S. with her father, Carol and Gifty, she clung to her stepmother. “I guess she thought I would let her go, too,” Carol says. Submitted by Carol Agana
At Navy, Amanda carried herself with the same smile and nervous laugh that had gotten her through one-third of her life — the American third. She batted away her teammates’ questions about the dozens of scars on her legs. She had fallen out of trees in Africa, she told them, never mentioning the beatings or the burnt tips of sticks that had seared her skin.
Yet Amanda’s cheerful facade was no salve for the emotional torment she endured on the inside. Her feelings of doubt and self-loathing emerged even in her running, the diversion that had always reassured her.
She went months without recording a new personal record, all while watching her teammates notch PRs around her. Am I their target? she wondered. Are they just using me to set PRs? Is that my only purpose on the team? Her academics started to slip. The feelings escalated. You’re not good enough to be here. You’re taking the place of somebody better.
Then came the moment on the breezeway, the midshipman who found her and took her to the company chaplain, the week spent in the hospital. When Amanda returned to Navy, the work of helping Amanda live a happy, healthy life wasn’t over.
It took me awhile to accept the idea that I am lovable and that I can be a positive change in this world.” Amanda Agana
The next stage of her treatment began on campus at the Navy Midshipmen Development Center. Started in the late 1990s, it is designed to reach beyond the institution’s academic and military roots to support the whole student. Nutrition, therapy, visits with a sports psychologist — even just a simple few minutes in a massage chair — are part of the services offered there, and the staff works to proactively reach out across campus to ensure midshipmen understand their availability.
For Navy, the Midshipmen Development Center is just one way of trying to identify and help midshipmen dealing with issues related to mental health. Chaplains, long a built-in resource in the military, remain an important part of the infrastructure and someone midshipmen can talk to in times of need. In 2016, Navy established the Peer Advisor program as a way of embedding watchful eyes within each company to help identify those in need of help and to provide training on resilience and mental health topics.
“A student, a student-athlete, a daughter, a son, a boyfriend, a partner, a girlfriend, there are all these roles that they play,” says Jessica Mohler, assistant director for the center and a clinical and sports psychologist. “Figuring out how to balance all those roles is the most common reason we see them, very similar to other college counseling centers. The kind of top three things that come up on a yearly basis are sadness, worry and relationships.”
And for those who require more serious intervention, the door is open to help with whatever past traumatic experiences they need to deal with.
“I think the first step in that is to establish a trusting relationship with any client that walks in the door, and that is also true for somebody who’s experienced trauma,” Mohler says. “We want to be able to create a safe space for them to be able to process the experience that they’ve had so they can better integrate it into their life and not subtract it from their life, but to figure out how they want to see themselves and really incorporate it into a healthy experience, healthy relationships, healthy ways of managing their current environment.”
In her first few appointments with a Midshipmen Development Center psychologist, Amanda felt nothing but bitterness and discomfort. She had discarded her happy charade when she was discovered on the breezeway, and without it, she wasn’t sure how to be Amanda.
When the psychologist asked how she was doing, Amanda sneered a response. “You obviously know how I’m doing,” she retorted. The psychologist didn’t care, Amanda told herself; she was just being paid to listen.
When Amanda couldn’t describe her pain or put her heart into words, the two just sat quietly. Amanda was angry, in pain and silent. “Whenever you’re ready,” the psychologist would say.
Finally, Amanda began to talk, and then talked more. She told the psychologist about Berta. About groundnut soup and rice balls. About her aunt’s kindness and sudden turn to vindictiveness. About the sugar cane and where the scars on her legs came from.
At one point the psychologist said something Amanda never expected to hear: “You don’t even realize how strong you are.”
Amanda was confused. How can I be strong when you know I just tried to kill myself? Amanda thought. The psychologist told her the amount of strength required to ask for help and try to better herself was greater than the amount of pain that led her to the brink of suicide.
“The best thing you can do for yourself and those around you is to simply admit, ‘I’m not OK,’ that I need help — and accept the help,” Amanda says.
Running in high school helped Amanda feel like she belonged and gave her the opportunity to attend college at Navy. She returns when she can to Ghana to deliver school supplies and other help to children. Submitted by Carol Agana
Part of Amanda’s path to healing has involved opening up to a few trusted teammates and telling them her story. Her coaches, too, have supported her while Amanda regained her confidence.
“They made me feel like every other athlete and that nothing had changed — that I was still me, and I can still train, and I can run as fast as I was before,” Amanda, now a senior, says. “They made me feel loved. It took me awhile to accept the idea that I am lovable and that I can be a positive change in this world.”
Jamie Cook, director of Navy track and field, is excited to see where Amanda will go next. “When she recognizes where the passion lies is when she really thrives,” Cook says. “Whatever she wants to do, she’ll do, as long as she stays focused on what she’s passionate about.”
For Amanda, the journey through therapy has given her power over her experience: “My greatest weakness and my greatest pain is now my greatest weapon,” she says.
After graduating with a political science degree in May, she will be stationed in San Diego and spend five years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. Amanda’s life goal remains the same: to return to Ghana and educate young minds. In the meantime, she has revisited the happiest times of her Ghanaian childhood with her Navy teammates, even cooking the groundnut soup and rice balls that, to Amanda, represent love.