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‘Unit3d’ podcast seen as ‘powerful tool’ for mental health

Experts, student-athletes share tips and personal stories to reach others during pandemic

Ole Miss psychologist Josie Nicholson hosts “Unit3d.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced campuses to send their students home in March, Ole Miss counseling and sports psychologist Josie Nicholson faced a challenging question.

How was she going to connect with and care for her student-athletes when none of them was on campus? 

Mark and Kym Hilinski encountered a similar challenge in their mission of improving mental health and well-being for college athletes through their foundation, Hilinski’s Hope. They started the foundation to honor the life of their son, Tyler Hilinski, a former quarterback at Washington State who took his own life in 2018. Mark and Kym — who received one of three Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Awards in June for their work with Hilinski’s Hope — normally travel to campuses across the country to share Tyler’s story, connect students with mental health resources, help colleges institutionalize best practices, and generate the funding necessary to support programs that will help destigmatize mental illness.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of all those opportunities indefinitely. This brought them to the same roadblock as Nicholson. Eventually, it brought them to a phone call with Nicholson, with whom they had worked before.

“They were already kind of in the same place I was with it: How can they continue their mission when they can’t do it the way they had been doing it?” Nicholson said.

Their answer: a podcast focused on mental health. “Unit3d” — powered and inspired by Hilinski’s Hope, as Tyler Hilinski wore No. 3 at Washington State — launched March 31. It’s put out more than 45 episodes since then, including a recent episode with NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline

Nicholson hosts the podcast and interviews mental health professionals, sport psychologists and student-athletes throughout the NCAA. The topics include gratitude, self-coaching, time and energy management, personal identity, mindset, and the recent social justice issues, plus many others. Collectively, the podcast is meant to be a “mind, spirit and performance playbook,” its bio states.

“I think one of the values of this podcast is that it’s engaging with experts in the field. If you go through episode by episode, it truly is the people doing the work throughout the NCAA, at institutions. There are people from North Carolina, and I’m from BYU, and Iowa and coast to coast,” said Tom Golightly, associate clinical director for BYU Counseling and Psychological Services, who was on Unit3d’s first episode. “It’s a group of highly qualified and experienced individuals saying, ‘Here are some things you can do that may be helpful.’ When student-athletes talk to me, I ask all the time about (these) podcasts, and I hear back, ‘That podcast you told me about, it’s crazy good.’ It’s really helpful for a lot of student-athletes, and they’re practical.”

“I think these podcasts touch on so many things that the student-athletes are going through right now, and it lets them know you’re not alone,” Kym Hilinski added. “I hope these podcasts really let them know that everybody’s in the same boat. We’re all rowing a little bit differently, but really we’re all affected.”

Morgan Chall, former chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and a former gymnast at Cornell, commended the podcast. She was on an episode in May with Mark and Kym Hilinski, titled: “Mental Health: Shifts in the Conversation.” In the episode, Chall recalled when she heard of Tyler Hilinski’s death in her first Division I SAAC meeting at the 2018 NCAA Convention and how the conversations that followed increased her urgency to do more in the space of mental health awareness.

Chall said she hopes this podcast can have a similar impact on others.

“This podcast can be a really powerful tool to reach a wide range of students,” Chall said, citing college students’ increasing interest in podcasts, especially during this pandemic. “One of the questions we ask each other is, ‘What Netflix show are you watching?’ And then, ‘Have you listened to any good podcasts lately?’”

Count Tereza Janatova as a more recent podcast convert. A senior last year for the Ole Miss women’s tennis team, she’s been tuning into “Unit3d” since it started. The Czech Republic native said it’s been key to her navigating challenges like being sent home when COVID-19 first hit the U.S. in the spring and dealing with the countless unknowns that have followed. 

“There is so much pressure on student-athletes, transitioning from high school to college, being distant from families, moving across the States or even the world, facing injuries, coping with anxiety and other struggles. These things are not easy,” Janatova said. “Student-athletes generally want to be seen as strong, mentally tough people, not wanting to show weakness. Reaching out for help, being vulnerable takes courage, and the more talk around mental health in athletics there is, the more people may get convinced to seek help. I feel like things like the ‘Unit3d’ podcast could play a big role in it. It definitely, positively changed my perspective on things.”

The personal stories are part of the strength of “Unit3d” as a resource, Golightly said. Data and studies on mental health are important resources to share, he said, but people connect with stories. This is why having student-athletes on the show is so vital, Nicholson added.

“Licensed mental health professionals are experts in a variety of mental health tools, but student-athletes are the experts in their experience. I think there is such validation in hearing from the experience of somebody who looks like you, feels like you, does your thing,” Nicholson said. “For them, to hear that this isn’t just me or their therapist saying this stuff works, but that my peers have been through stuff and I’m not alone is powerful.”

Chall said the podcast is an example of one of the positive side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: It’s forced people to become creative.

“This podcast is a perfect resource,” she said. “It’s not just opening up the conversation, but it’s actually a resource that can be shared forever.”

Mental health resources across college athletics have increased significantly in the past 10 years, Nicholson said. Golightly agreed, citing an annual conference held for mental health professionals in college athletics in Big Sky, Montana. He said his first year at the conference, there were 12 people in the room. In recent years, more than 150 attended. 

Nicholson credited student-athletes in this shift, specifically the Student-Athlete Advisory Committees for making it a priority in recent years. The national SAACs for all three divisions have mental health as one of their priorities or goals for the 2020-21 academic year.

“I believe most of it has been because athletes have demanded it. The big conversations with SAAC have been around mental health and the resources needed to support them and their mental health,” Nicholson said. “When athletes say this is necessary, and then to have someone like Brian Hainline listening has really elevated the conversation, that has been a huge shift.”

Still, there’s plenty of work to do in the mental health sphere in college athletics. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified that need, as indicated by an NCAA-led survey in the spring.

The NCAA’s Sport Science Institute, led by Hainline, has continued to prioritize mental health and bring experts together to work on solutions. In his podcast interview with Nicholson, Hainline outlined some of this work, including the NCAA’s Diverse Student-Athlete Mental Health and Well-Being Summit.

“We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way,” Nicholson said. “In the 10 years I’ve been doing this, we’ve come a long way. We’ve reduced some of the stigma. Coaches are acknowledging this is important, and there is more value than ‘help for the troubled kids.’ It’s more about every human and the humanity of the athlete. If we’re going to ask so much of them and demand so much of them, then that means giving them every resource and every tool for them to be as successful as they want them to be.”