On Tuesday, a panel of student athletes gathered in the Shannon Room to discuss their personal experiences with mental health and avenues for reducing the stigma around mental illness in an event titled, “Kicking the Stigma.”
The panel, which was organized by women’s soccer team member Rachel Stout ’18 and Director of Counseling Services and Wellness Programs Bernie Hershberger, began with an anonymous online poll asking audience members to share their own views on and experiences with mental health on campus. Of the roughly 24 participants that answered each question via smartphone, a majority of the audience thought that there were not enough resources on campus for mental health issues. One hundred percent of respondents said they know teammates or friends who struggle with mental health.
The discussion aimed to communicate how prevalent struggles with mental health are among the athletic community at Bowdoin. Panelist Cole Crawford ’20, a member of the rowing team, decided to be on the panel after Counseling Services asked him to share his experiences in order to bring light to issues surrounding mental health in athletics.
“When I got to Bowdoin, the chaos and rapid pace distracted me and addressing, dealing [with] and maintaining my mental health went on the back burner. I think in sports, there is a need to project mental strength,” Crawford said in the panel. “Bringing the conversation out into the open and making it a bit more public will hopefully raise awareness about mental health and taking good care of yourself.”
Other members of the panel expressed similar sentiments. Haley Friesch ’18, a member of the women’s golf team, said she started to struggle with mental health during the second semester of her first year at Bowdoin, and was later diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
“Some people might shy away from having that label, but it really helped me conceptualize what I was dealing with…Now I try to be really open about it,” said Friesch.
John Galusha ’20, an offensive lineman on the football team, emphasized the lack of attention paid to mental well-being in athletics.
“The way it affects your play is shockingly underappreciated. We train all the time … I feel like there is so little time spent on an appreciation of the individual, not just who is filling a position or making a play,” said Galusha. “You have players who don’t feel like they have the kinds of spaces and relationships with the coaches, or program-wide support for issues like this.”
There was agreement among the panel that coaches need to be better equipped to discuss and understand the mental health concerns of their athletes.
“My mental health had detrimental effects on my relationship with my coach and eventually my relationship with my sport,” said Stout. “For me, coming to Bowdoin, I had been diagnosed with depression, and as I was at Bowdoin my freshmen year…I didn’t have a coach who was accepting and listening to what I was trying to say to her…I was told to just push through it.”
Stout said that she has been working with Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster and Director of Athletics Tim Ryan to implement training programs for coaches and their assistants. However, Stout was discouraged by the lack of coaches present at the panel.
“This [event] did go out to every single coach, every single athletic director and every person that is higher up, so the fact that they’re not here is a major problem,” said Stout.
The panelists also shared ways that they have dealt with mental illness, as well as actions teammates and friends can take if they suspect that a peer is struggling.
“As a teammate, it’s essential that you’re not only willing to talk to people, but that you also believe it when they tell you things,” said Galusha.
“Talking about [mental health] more in everyday conversations is going to make it more normalized and chip away at the stigma,” said Friesch. “It doesn’t mean that people who struggle with mental health have to put themselves out there and share stories if they’re not comfortable, but I think a lot more people would be comfortable if they thought people would be receptive.”
Stout hopes that this panel will help start more open discussions about mental health on campus.
“I think the next step should be a ripple effect,” she said. “Hopefully [we can start] more conversations. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a panel setting but maybe at College Houses just [having] get-togethers. More spaces create less of a stigma for mental health and more of an open and honest conversation.”