Mental health: End the stigma

Oregon State student-athletes Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten, co-founders of the #DamWorthIt campaign, on the WSUV campus.

When I sat down earlier this year to review plans for this semester’s Sports and the Media class, I knew I’d be raising issues of race, gender, politics, economics and technology. This year I decided to add a new topic: mental health.

After back-to-back classes this week on the subject, highlighted by two student-athletes who came in as guest speakers to deliver a powerful peer-to-peer presentation, I could see the value of adding it to the syllabus. My only regret was not doing it sooner.

Think about it. If you’re a college athlete, you’re trying to balance your academics with the demands of grueling practices, traveling to games, and the expectations of performing at a high level in your sport, in front of screaming crowds and national television audiences. Throw in concerns about injuries and playing time, and that’s a whole lot of pressure on your young shoulders.

Taylor Ricci, a gymnast, and Nathan Braaten, a soccer player, endured those experiences during their athletic careers at Oregon State University. Further motivated by the deaths of teammates who died by suicide 11 months apart, they co-founded a campaign, using the platform of sports, to spark conversation about mental health issues at universities around the country.

Their campaign is called #DamWorthIt — a play on words involving the school’s Beaver mascot — and the Twitter hashtag #EndTheStigma is at the heart of it. Since launching the initiative a little over a year ago, their campaign has received national recognition and the Pac-12 Conference has awarded them a $60,000 grant to take their message — that “It’s OK to not be OK” — to student-athletes and coaching staffs at all the member schools.

On Thursday, the two of them drove up from Corvallis to speak to my students at Washington State University Vancouver. Taylor and Nathan presented a slideshow and a video, and told their individual stories of facing mental health challenges as scholarship athletes and top-tier students expected to maintain a facade of perfection.

Taylor, originally from North Vancouver, British Columbia, began competing at age 4 and committed to Oregon State’s nationally ranked gymnastics team as a 14-year-old, rising to become team captain at OSU. A Kinesiology Pre-Med major, she graduated last spring and is awaiting word on her applications to begin medical school in the fall.

Nathan, from Littleton, Colorado, was recruited to play midfielder. He is a Business and Finance major who interned for Nike last summer and will return to the company as a full-time employee after graduation this spring. Both he and Taylor were named Academic All-Americans.

Needless to say, they stand out as shining examples of smart and successful young people. But there’s the catch. As they note, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental health illness in a given year — and the proportion is even higher among college students.

Taylor and Nathan spoke with honesty and conviction about their stresses and what drove each of them to see a therapist. The implication was clear for my students. If high achievers like these two can ask for professional help, any of them should feel free to do the same — or, at least, check in with friends who might benefit from similar encouragement.

In three years of teaching at two campuses, I have seen many young adults in my classes struggle with challenges involving family and finances, academics and health, romance and roommates, car troubles and work schedules, as well as incarcerated siblings, and immigrant parents facing deportation. No wonder a good many of them are stressed out or experiencing depression.

The #DamWorthIt campaign launched in January 2018, the same week that Tyler Hilinski, a universally admired WSU quarterback, took his own life on the Pullman campus. Because of that tragic coincidence, our guest speakers said they have felt a special bond with WSU.

On Thursday, it was gratifying to see Taylor and Nathan connect so powerfully with a message designed by students for students.

One student wrote to me later to say: ” (T)his week I made a big step to see a therapist and after my visit I realized that it wasn’t a form of weakness but of strength. The timing of this topic could not have been better.”

Another one said this: “Their presentation made me want to stop and be more present for the people in my life. I know that we all get busy and we carry our own lives, but it is important to be present and in the moment for the people important to you. By being present, we are able to hopefully notice signs of the people in our lives and notice that they might be struggling.”

I am indebted to Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten for sharing their stories and bringing light to a subject that’s still shrouded in shame. Had I not noticed a short story on their efforts in a Sports Illustrated article in January, I would not have been aware of their trailblazing efforts to address a hidden epidemic. They responded graciously to my emails inviting them to come up to Vancouver and left having made a lasting impression on my students and me.

#DamWorthIt, all right.

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