Samantha Sandland (right) and Dr. Stephen Durant participated in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference Professional Development Seminar that discussed mental health issues of student-athletes. Photo by Carla Osberg
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By Greg Johnson
BOSTON – Samantha Sandland had never thought about being depressed.
After all, she had a life-of-the-party personality, often appearing at Salve Regina University sporting events dressed up as the school’s Seahawk mascot. She was also known as a strong-willed soccer student-athlete.
Samantha Sandland (center) has fun with some teammates during her senior season of soccer at Salve Regina. Sandland overcame a major depressive episode during her sophomore year to return to competition. Photo courtesy of Samantha Sandland.
She did have a traumatic episode when she was 12 and her mother was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. While her mother survived the disease, Sandland was tested again seven years later when her father survived a Stage IV battle of his own, with head and neck cancer.
The second instance of preparing for the death of a loved one apparently was too much for Sandland to bear. It was at that point Sandland went into a deep depression and had to go to a mental institution to receive treatment.
“I never thought this would be an issue for me,” said Sandland, who graduated from Salve Regina last December with a degree in psychology. “If you ask anyone in my family, they will tell you that I thought I was bullet-proof. I would try to fight through anything.”
Sandland talked about battling mental illness at the Great Northeast Athletic Conference Professional Development Seminar that focused on the topic last Thursday in Boston. She wants to share her story publicly so other student-athletes, coaches and administrators can learn from her experience.
Her father’s dire diagnosis occurred at the end of Sandland’s freshman year in college. At the time, he was given four months to live.
That entire summer, Sandland used her soccer regimen as a defense mechanism for dealing with her personal stress. She even went so far as to write her father’s obituary.
Lisa Yenush, the associate athletics director at Salve Regina and also Sandland’s soccer coach her first two years of college, asked Sandland if she needed to talk to a counselor about the situation. Sandland declined, thinking she could manage it herself.
Just as her mother had done earlier, Sandland’s father survived. But something remained troubling for Sandland. She couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel happy about the good news. The resulting guilt compounded her emotional state. Sandland’s teammates even threw her a party, but it wasn’t a pleasant occasion for her. Instead, it triggered a nervous breakdown.
She felt she had lost her identity as the strong individual who could withstand everything.
“It was almost like I was holding my breath so long because the emotions were so strong,” said Sandland, who now teaches non-verbal autistic children in Warwick, Rhode Island. “It was like someone was playing a joke on me, and my mind couldn’t grasp it.”
Sandland, 23, likes to be in control, but this circumstance was out of her hands.
“I planned for it to turn for the worse,” she said. “I just felt an extreme amount of guilt.”
For two months, Sandland spiraled downward. She lost 45 pounds from not eating or sleeping. She also lost muscle mass because she quit training for soccer.
“As a coach, you are always worried about your students,” Yenush said. “You care about them and love them so they will be the best they can be. It’s disconcerting to see one of your student-athletes go through this. No one will be ready to get help until they are ready to be helped.”
Sandland would disappear for hours at a time without anyone knowing where she was.
“I would go out and drive for six hours, and my roommates would go out and try to find me,” Sandland said. “I truthfully thought I was gone for five minutes. I just wasn’t in reality. It was like I was at war with myself.”
Sandland reached the point where she had to be admitted to a mental institution for three weeks. She was placed on prescription medication to regain a sense of herself.
“I believe that if I hadn’t gone to the hospital, I would have killed myself,” Sandland said. “I didn’t understand what I was going through. It was a feeling of complete hopelessness.”
Visits from some of her teammates, including best friend Christina Lee, helped, as did support from Yenush and Kerri Scroope, who was her soccer coach during Sandland’s final two years of eligibility.
“My coaches put me in a situation where I wasn’t being judged,” Sandland said. “I give them credit for watching over me as I went through this.”
Sandland took a semester off from school but returned to her center midfield position at Salve Regina. She was captain of the team her senior year.
As for the future, Sandland is thinking of earning a master’s degree and possibly a doctorate in sports psychology or behavioral analysis. She also wants to continue doing public speaking on her experience, all the while knowing her recovery from her major depressive episode is ongoing.
“This is a consistent battle I fight every day,” Sandland said. “When you go through something like that, it takes a significant amount of time to recover. I am still petrified of it happening again. I get into funks, but I know I’ve been through the worst.”
“I wanted to be here,” Sandland said of her appearance at the seminar. “Education is the biggest part to this. Mental health is a passion in my life.”