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Mental Health Awareness: Campuses and conferences supporting wellness

Student-athletes across the nation have benefited from recent resources and initiatives during the pandemic

Scratch the Stigma campaign posters from Chico State (courtesy of chicowildcats.com).

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and across the country NCAA student-athletes, schools and conferences are creating initiatives and providing resources dedicated to improving and maintaining mental health in student-athletes. The need for these resources became even greater in the past year as student-athletes experienced the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those resources and initiatives are highlighted here:

Chico State — Scratch the Stigma
Division II

The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at Chico State created the Scratch the Stigma campaign in the spring of 2019 to break the silence surrounding mental health and encourage open dialogue on the subject.

The campaign uses a series of posters with QR codes that send people to a webpage providing information on resources available on and off campus to Chico State students. Nadia Torkman, a women’s track and field student-athlete at Chico State, spearheaded the creation of the campaign.

“I wanted to show that mental wellness is just as important as one’s physical health, if not more,” said Torkman, who is now pursuing her master’s degree in public administration. “The campaign was very well received. I think it was a catalyst for the athletic department to increase awareness and conversation surrounding mental health and well-being.”

East Coast Conference — Mental Health Awareness Week
Division II

Despite the pandemic, the East Coast Conference was still able to hold its annual Mental Health Awareness Week virtually in April. This initiative provides East Coast Conference student-athletes and staff with tips and best practices on a variety of mental health topics.

This year, topics included improving sleep during stressful times, mindfulness meditation practices, yoga and a comedy/illusion session to help participants take a break and unplug a bit. The sessions were accompanied by a weeklong social media campaign that included positive affirmations and account takeovers by student-athletes at different schools in the ECC.

St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference — Mental Health and Wellness Resource Page
Division III

Launched in conjunction with the NCAA’s Mental Health and Wellness campaign, the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference created a webpage that provided weekly talks with a mental health education professional to cover a variety of related topics for student-athletes.

Like many mental health initiatives across the country, this one proved to be as relevant as ever during the pandemic. Topics included sleep, nutrition and stress management skills; having an attitude of gratitude; learning how to cope with failure; and dealing with fatigue caused by the virtual learning environment. The talks provided discussion and resources for student-athletes to deal with the circumstances caused by the pandemic and beyond.

USA South Athletic Conference — Student-Athlete Wellness Series
Division III

This year, the USA South Athletic Conference launched a four-part student-athlete wellness series called Optimizing Student-Athlete Mental Health.

Led by professional counselors, this series invited Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members from each campus in the USA South to participate in monthly recorded webinars that provide education and open dialogue on a variety of mental health topics, including time management, creating positive beginnings, setting boundaries, planning for success, and coping with stress and anxiety. These webinars were shared with each campus’s SAAC to open dialogue and encourage discussions on their respective campuses.

“During the past 12 months, student-athletes have experienced a tremendous amount of change and uncertainty,” USA South Commissioner Tom Hart said in a news release. “This program is an attempt to assist our student-athletes in understanding they are not alone in preserving their mental health. There are strategies that can assist them now and throughout their lifetime when similar circumstances arise. This program will work to introduce those strategies both in concept and action.”

Pennsylvania — Keep Your Head UP Program
Division I

Pennsylvania launched its Keep Your Head UP program to bring student-athlete mental health to the forefront of the conversation regarding the college athlete experience. The program encourages student-athletes to change the narrative surrounding mental health into a positive one and allows for them to prioritize healthy progress.

The Keep Your Head UP program is one of many initiatives and resources that Pennsylvania has made available for student-athletes. There is a mental health resource page on its athletics website dedicated to providing information regarding mental health practices for student-athletes to use. “How we know that progress is being made is (mental health) becomes a natural part of the conversation, so people are happy to talk about either seeing a therapist or that they’re getting support or doing things actively for their mental health,” said Andrea Wieland, Pennsylvania director of sport performance.

We’re All Teammates
Division I

TC Anderson and Connor Gavigan — both featured in episode 56 of the NCAA’s Social Series — were soccer teammates at Florida Gulf Coast University, where they both experienced mental health struggles due to the pressure put on them from athletics and being a full-time student.

Together, they created We’re All Teammates, a platform that allows student-athletes to share their stories on an open forum and create a community of support for those who have experienced similar things. Anderson and Gavigan don’t edit the stories at all. They let student-athletes tell their stories in as much or as little detail as they please, and then they support those athletes in any way they can. The website also provides mental health resources for users to access.

“We don’t make any edits to the stories. We just post them as they are, and people can comment on them and interact just to see that they’re not alone and we’re all in this together,” Anderson said.

“We just want to do our part in pushing this forward to break the stigma that surrounds athletes and mental health,” Gavigan added when talking about the motivation for creating the platform.

Saint Anselm — Head Game Project
Division II

Ally Irish, also featured on episode 56 of the Social Series, is a women’s lacrosse student-athlete at Saint Anselm and the co-founder of the Head Game Project. This is a student-run organization intent on establishing a culture of openness and support for student-athletes struggling with mental health issues. Creating this program has allowed for educational programming to happen within the student-athlete population and has provided student-athletes with the ability to have conversations with peers and coaches about mental health.

Irish created the program after her own personal battle with mental health issues and the realization that others — especially student-athletes — could use help, as well. “This is so important because (mental health) not only affects you mentally, but it does physically,” Irish said during the Social Series. “I started to wonder if other athletes, other students were going through something similar to me but didn’t have the support system at home, so that’s kind of why we created this.”