A new student-led initiative at the University of Vermont is focusing on improving the well-being of student athletes.
The effort, called "Rally Around Mental Health," aims to create an atmosphere where student athletes feel more supported and comfortable seeking help with eating disorders, stress, depression, or other concerns.
"It definitely became an eye-opening experience coming to college and meeting people going through the same things I was," said Kelly Lennon, a swimmer from Methuen, Massachusetts, who says she once struggled with anxiety.
While Lennon noted she sought help for her anxiety, and found ways to thrive inside of and out of the pool, she said she worries peers may not be so open.
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"People come to me and say, 'I'm struggling with X, Y, and Z,' but they would never go and say that to someone else," Lennon observed.
Lennon has helped lead the launch of "Rally Around Mental Health," along with other students, including one of the star basketball players of the UVM Catamounts, Trae Bell-Haynes, a junior from Toronto, Ontario.
The students said they have heard from other schools, including St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont, that have also recently embraced initiatives to promote mental health among student athletes.
The topic is also picking up energy on campuses nationally, student organizers at UVM said.
"The whole athletic community has been really helpful," Bell-Haynes said of the roll-out at UVM.
The basketball player said of course, any student—athlete or not—may experience ups and downs in mental health. But he speculated that sports standouts may be more hesitant to seek help, because of pressure they so often feel to appear successful.
"When you injure your leg or injure your ankle, you go to the doctor; you check it out," Bell-Haynes said. "We want mental health issues to be looked at in the same way. When something's bothering you, you can talk about it."
Annie Valentine, UVM's coordinator of mental health education and outreach, said she believes the initiative will continue to break apart the stigma of mental health challenges.
"It starts to shift the culture," Valentine said.
Valentine added that she believes the campaign will be successful in large part because it’s driven by students, and their peers are likely to listen to them.
"We're in this together, and let's talk about this so that as individuals, we get to work on each other, but then we come together and be a stronger team," Valentine said, describing what may be a typical peer-to-peer conversation around mental health.
The Rally Around Mental Health campaign now aims to involve even more sports teams at UVM and is working on developing special programming and events, Lennon said.