This week in the Ohio Valley Conference-wide athletic community, each university’s athletic department is working together to bring awareness to a topic that oftentimes is not at the forefront of the conversation in athletics – mental health.
The goal of OVC’s 2nd annual Mental Health Awareness Week, headed by each university’s Student Athletic Advisory committee, is to improve the stigma surrounding mental health within the athletic community.
“In the athletic world, mental health awareness is huge. Everyone experiences emotional difficulty at some point in their life,” said Nick Rogell, a staff counselor at EKU’s Counseling Center. “Athletes face the same mental health issues everyone else faces.”
Throughout this week, the student-athletes of SAAC across the OVC partnered with their university’s counseling centers to create weeklong activities that center around educating and informing athletes about mental health-related issues and how they can seek help if needed. Some of these activities, hosted by EKU’s Counseling Center, include yoga for mental health, meditation groups, workshops and informal consultations.
Student-athletes face many pressures each day, which sometimes places mental health on the backburner. Kyle Jury, a senior on the Men’s golf team, said that during his freshman year he felt the pressure to not seem weak. As a result, he said, he struggled to be open with his teammates about how he was actually doing because he cared what they would think.
Rogell, who specializes in student-athlete mental health issues, said this happens frequently in athletics.
“The stigma is that if you seek help, you’re mentally weak,” Rogell said. “The reality is that the more support you have, the stronger you are. No one is an island. We all need people in our corner to help us through tough times.”
After learning about the Counseling Center, Jury said, he decided to go, having experienced some anxiety his sophomore year.
“Just talking about it with someone helped me to see how to identify what was going on,” Jury said. “A lot of athletes deal with issues whether they tell people or not.”
Student-athletes that do come in for support face a wide variety of mental health-related issues, including anxiety and depression, addiction, homesickness, relationship problems and, very commonly, identity issues, Rogell said.
For most, they have been a student-athlete for almost all of their lives, so their sport can be a big part of their identity, Rogell said. The question of who they are outside of their sport becomes one that they must face, which can be scary to athletes. Addressing this issue and any others that athletes may face, Rogell said, will help athletes gain the ability to bounce back when change does occur.
As a former EKU student-athlete, Rachel Vick, now an occupational therapist in Seattle, said that feeling the burden of perfectionism is something that she personally struggled with and something that she believes many student-athletes face. She said student-athletes are high-achievers, and as a result, want to contribute to their team and control their performance.
“I do remember feeling like if I struggled, I couldn't ask for help and I had to get through it on my own to be strong, tough and a leader on the team,” Vick said. “When we aren't afraid to think about what's going on inside and take care of our mental health, the hard days get a little bit easier.”
Vick said she believes the NCAA campaigns, the public support of mental health for student-athletes and weeks like this one have contributed to changing the negative stigma surrounding mental health to a more positive one.
“I’m just happy mental health issues are being talked about at all in the athletic community,” Rogell said. “It didn’t always use to be like this. This was a topic that was brushed under the rug, but just because we ignore it doesn’t mean it’s going away. The more we talk about mental health and make it a focus of conversation, the more people we will all be able to reach and help.”