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Oregon State pair work to amp up conversation on mental health

Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten (holding signs) man the #DamWorthIt booth during an Oregon State women’s basketball game. The campaign has attracted considerable media attention. Photo submitted by Taylor Ricci

Oregon State’s Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are on a mission. Braaten lost a soccer teammate to suicide in the summer of 2016, and a former college gymnastics teammate of Ricci’s took her own life last summer. Determined to do something to help, the two formed a partnership to destigmatize mental health issues on campus.

“We don’t want this sort of thing to happen again on our campus or anywhere else,” Braaten says. “So we decided to do something about it.”

That something has a name: #DamWorthIt. Ricci says its purpose is to use the influential platform of sport to open up the conversation around mental health.

“The three main components of our campaign are the education piece, the resource piece and then the awareness and comfort piece,” Ricci says, noting #DamWorthIt also has a strong social media presence.

The #DamWorthIt mental health awareness campaign officially launched Jan. 18 at the men’s basketball home game vs. UCLA. #DamWorthIt volunteers now can be seen at campus sporting events, with six to eight Oregon State student-athletes manning an information booth along with a promotional video playing during the event. The school’s counseling and psychological services outreach team also has a booth at the #DamWorthIt athletics events to distribute educational materials on mental health and to talk about available local and national resources.

Mental health promotion specialist Bonnie Hemrick says university staff and faculty can spread the message that being vulnerable and asking for help and support when needed show strength, but when students see other students talking about mental health and modeling the message, it resonates so much more. Hemrick says her role is to offer guidance on the best practice of how to safely share mental health stories and use them to encourage student-athletes to learn more about mental health and look out for teammates who may be struggling.

“Nathan, Taylor and other student-athletes who have shared their voice for the campaign are openly and directly addressing mental health so that others can feel comfortable following their lead,” Hemrick says.

College campuses generally have seen an increase in the number of students experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and research conducted by the NCAA indicates similar findings among the student-athlete population. Data from the latest Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in College study, conducted in 2015, shows about 30 percent of more than 21,000 respondents self-reporting that they have been intractably overwhelmed during the past month, with increases noted across each division compared with the 2010 GOALS study.

Student-athlete mental health is a timely topic, particularly after national media coverage of the suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski right before the #DamWorthIt campaign launched.

“We really want every school to have something like the demo campaign, where they can encourage a culture of understanding of mental health,” says Braaten, a junior.

After several late-night drafting sessions, Braaten and Ricci submitted a proposal in January for the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program, which supports research and data-driven pilot projects designed to enhance student-athlete psychosocial well-being and mental health. In late January, the pair attended the APPLE Institute, an annual three-day training for student-athletes, athletics administrators and campus partners dedicated to substance abuse prevention and health promotion of college athletes. It is sponsored by the NCAA Sport Science Institute in partnership with the University of Virginia Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

Ricci, a Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee member, voted on proposals to improve medical care and enhance student-athlete well-being at the 2018 NCAA Convention in January.

They call themselves the Dream Team, with Ricci as the dreamer and Braaten, a finance major, as more of the realist. Their partnership formed in October over coffee, during what was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting. Instead, Braaten and Ricci spent three hours creating the idea of a campaign. The next day, they pitched it to Oregon State athletics staff — and #DamWorthIt was born.

“And if we can save one life,” Braaten says, “that means it was #DamWorthIt.”

Other Acts of Kindness

Giving Back: Notre Dame junior golfer Miguel Delgado has made volunteerism a way of life since joining the Irish, so much that he added a poverty studies minor to his finance major. In addition to volunteering at Darden Primary Center, an elementary school in South Bend, Indiana, he also spent time at a Haitian orphanage last summer through the Haitian Roots nonprofit organization.

A Winning Combination: Hannah Petersen, a junior on the St. Mary’s (Texas) women’s tennis team, spent three weeks in Vietnam volunteering for a service learning program called Coach for College, which pairs American student-athletes and Vietnamese university students to teach academics, sports and life skills to disadvantaged children in rural Vietnam. Petersen was responsible for teaching eighth- and ninth-graders at her camp in the Hau Giang province, located in the southern part of Vietnam along the Mekong Delta region. “It makes you realize how much of an impact you can have on someone’s life,” Petersen says.

Service Brigade: Student-athletes from the Albion men’s lacrosse, women’s lacrosse, men’s soccer, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball teams traveled Dec. 9-15 to Nicaragua as part of the Global Medical Brigades service trip. The group packaged medical supplies for the clinic, assisted dentists, shadowed doctors in consultations, helped in the pharmacy and taught children about oral hygiene. The group also mixed cement by hand to lay flooring for six homes.

Mountaineer Message: The West Virginia women’s basketball team hosted I Belong Day for the Jan. 28 home game against Baylor. In collaboration with the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I Belong Day celebrated diversity and inclusion and highlighted local residents from various backgrounds during a pregame showcase. More than 40 student and community organizations participated in an educational fair before the game.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.