Your Mental Health Matters

Chelsey Kraft
By Chelsey Kraft
Special to SoonerSports.com

One day, Alyssa Enneking realized she had to make a change.

She had not been OK for a while and was already facing a few tough situations, including some family problems. Then, in summer 2017, Enneking and her sister received a call from the hospital that their dad, Eric, had gone into surgery and it had not gone well. He spent four days in a coma, and after he recovered, Enneking headed back to Norman and her daily routine as a student-athlete on the University of Oklahoma volleyball team.

From then on, Enneking could tell that something was off. She just felt different. She wasn't laughing as much. She didn't want to be around people. During a practice, she experienced her turning point. For some reason, she felt "so unbearably unhappy" but was putting on a strong face anyway. At one point, she asked head coach Lindsey Gray-Walton a volleyball-related question and burst into tears upon the ordinary response.

"It had been not a very good week for me at all, which was kind of the theme of my life at the moment," Enneking shared. "It just always felt like I was having a bad day. There was just this huge storm like a thundercloud hanging over me at all times, which was not a feeling that I was used to."

After sharing with Erin Nelson, the volleyball athletic trainer, that she was struggling, Enneking scheduled an appointment with the Psychological Resources for OU Student-Athletes (PROS) office. There, she found the help she needed to start feeling like herself again.

Enneking's mental health matters, as does the mental health of not only her fellow student-athletes but of everyone. This message is the driving force behind the new OU Athletics "Your Mental Health Matters" campaign, which seeks to bring awareness to the importance of taking care of mental health and reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health services for student-athletes.

Creating the Campaign

The NCAA has identified mental health as a top priority for student-athlete health and wellness, said Dolores Christensen, assistant director for PROS. At last summer's Big 12 Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) meeting, the league's leaders emphasized the importance of member institutions focusing on and supporting the mental health of their student-athletes.

This was an issue also on the radar of Nicole Mendes, an OU softball junior and president of the school's Student-Athlete Innovative Leaders, or SAIL. After hearing discussions about mental health issues at the Big 12 meeting the summer after her freshman year, Mendes wanted to make it a big initiative for SAIL on campus.

She had seen firsthand how student-athletes might not know what to do if a teammate was struggling or what to do if they needed help themselves. Having struggled with her own mental health too, Mendes recognized the importance of making the topic a focus.

Around the same time, Enneking, who graduated from OU in December 2018 with a marketing degree, was starting a similar campaign on her own. Once Enneking learned the initiatives Mendes was starting, she reached out and the two connected and began working together on the efforts. The pair then met with Carol Ludvigson, OU senior associate athletics director for student-athlete development, and the campaign grew from there.

"I think it's so cool how much people have backed up this idea and this project and have really embraced the idea of mental health and making it important; not just student-athletes but also coaches, faculty and staff."
- Nicole Mendes

"We had the same goal," Mendes recalled. "We wanted to make sure that we achieved the same thing, which is helping break the stigma, helping take action and really educating others – not just student-athletes but fans and other students as well – on mental health, what it means, why it's a big deal and not something to be ashamed to talk about."

Initiated by student-athletes, OU's "Your Mental Health Matters" campaign has three key components: awareness, education and community engagement and collaboration. These components can be seen through designated OU athletics events that are designed to promote mental health awareness, various videos in which student-athletes share their unique stories related to taking care of their mental health and collaboration with other Big 12 schools, Christensen said. Long term, there are plans to also add more outreach and intervention across campus and in the Norman community.

In spring 2018, the softball and baseball teams designated some of their contests as Mental Health Games with the student-athletes wearing green and encouraging their fans to do the same. This aspect expanded in the 2018-19 academic year, with both of those teams holding games again this spring and soccer, volleyball and track and field hosting ones as well. In the week leading up to these games, PROS staff members met with the teams to go over the importance of mental health, statistics and ways to identify and intervene when they as individuals or someone they care about could use more support.

"It's great to see where a small idea started and where it's at now," Mendes said. "I think it's so cool how much people have backed up this idea and this project and have really embraced the idea of mental health and making it important; not just student-athletes but also coaches, faculty and staff."

Prior to their awareness games, softball and baseball players shared how they take care of their mental health through clips on social media. Fellow Big 12 institutions have also participated in OU's campaign, with West Virginia wearing green as the Sooners' opponent during Mental Health Games for soccer and volleyball. Texas Tech baseball not only wore green against the Sooners during their series in early May, but the players also recorded clips about their mental health that were included with the OU players' stories.

 "We have a monthly conference call with the Big 12 providers where we're trying to collaborate and share best practices among the Big 12," Christensen said. "Yes, we're competing, and yes, we want to be the best, but there's also a sense of commonality that all of our student-athletes are under this pressure, so how can we as professionals and coaches and student-athletes model that we're all here for each other? It sounds really cliché, but it's also really true."

OU student-athletes have been at the forefront of raising awareness for mental health in the Big 12 and nationwide.

Setting the Standard

OU was the first athletics department in the country to hire a full-time, in-house provider in Dr. Nicki Moore, who led PROS when it was established in 2004. Since then, PROS has long been seen as the "gold standard" for addressing student-athlete mental health with one of the largest staffs in the nation.  

"Within the sport psychology community, other athletics departments say, 'We want to be as embedded as PROS is. We want a size of staff that PROS has. We want to be involved as PROS is,'" Christensen explained. "It makes sense that we would be a leader in mental health care of student-athletes, but then how does that look on a preventative level too? If we can get people to think about their mental health before a mental health crisis occurs, maybe that crisis doesn't happen."

The fact that OU has been on the forefront of the topic of mental health and has invested resources focused on this area demonstrates that OU Vice President and Athletics Director Joe Castiglione prioritizes student-athletes above all things, Christensen said. This commitment also shows that OU is proactive, added Cody Commander, director of PROS.

"We're not waiting for a tragedy before we take action to help student-athletes be able to lead healthier lives," Commander stated.

"Under SAIL's leadership, our student-athletes are once again demonstrating the power of their platforms to enact change and positively impact their peers."
- OU Athletics Director Joe Castiglione

As college students, student-athletes face the typical challenges of that population, including depression, anxiety and homesickness. Additionally, they deal with unique struggles that come with being athletes, such as adjusting to the ups and downs of their sport, pressures to perform in competition and adjusting to living in the spotlight.

Thus, PROS offers a diversity of services to student-athletes, including individual counseling, couples counseling, sport performance psychology for individuals who want to have a stronger mental game in their sport, leadership and development, psychological testing for ADHD, learning disorders, mood disorders and medication management.  

"It made me feel good that no matter what my problem was, whether it was coming from inside the sport or outside the sport, which in my case it was mostly just family and situational stress, it felt nice to know that we were being taken care of on all aspects of our mental health," said Enneking, who was an All-American during her time with the Sooners.

"To have this many people on staff for student-athletes is just incredible," Mendes echoed. "It's such a great resource. I know a bunch of my teammates and myself, we all like to go even if we're just talking to get something off our chest or just improving our game performance. It's such a huge benefit to have. It's really incredible."

Making an Impact

Castiglione said the OU Athletics Department has long been a leader and innovator when it comes to prioritizing the mental health and wellbeing of student-athletes, and that the "Your Mental Health Matters" initiative is the latest example of that proactivity.

"This campaign expands the conversation to intentional discussions within the department, with our teams and across our sport communities to encourage everyone to consider ways they can take care of their mental health," he explained. "We know that these conversations help to destigmatize reaching out for help and can make a big difference in someone's life. Under SAIL's leadership, our student-athletes are once again demonstrating the power of their platforms to enact change and positively impact their peers."

After meeting with some OU teams as part of the Mental Health Games, Christensen said she has received comments from student-athletes about how helpful the sessions were. She also recently had a student-athlete in her office who mentioned they wished they would have come in sooner but didn't think they could, and she believes that stories like Alyssa's will help spur other student-athletes to seek help earlier.

"It feels great, knowing that this issue that has been hiding in the dark for so long, that all it takes is for a couple of people to step up so that it's in the light and it's no longer something to be ashamed of," Enneking expressed. "It's something that a lot of people identity with and can understand."

Campaigns like "Your Mental Health Matters" can help lessen the stigma and create a door opening that some people may walk through later to seek help.

"We often see a jump in students seeking services after we do things like that," Commander said. "We also see a spike in people coming in after they know a peer who's come in as well. Part of this stigma is, 'I don't want to be the only one seeking services,' so when they know there's a peer like them, whether it's a teammate or another athlete that they look up to, they're more likely to come in as well because it normalizes it."

Enneking hopes her story and the "Your Mental Health Matters" campaign inspires people who are going through similar struggles to seek the help they not only need but also deserve.

"Feeling not OK is OK, but you deserve to feel OK," Enneking emphasized. "You deserve to feel better and to give yourself a chance to feel like you again."

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