Student-athletes deal with a great deal of pressure both in their athletic and academic lives. Often they are not equipped to handle the stresses that are part of that lifestyle which can have a detrimental affect on their mental health. Organizations such as the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative are doing a tremendous amount of work to build awareness, provide education and build a community to support student-athletes in managing their mental health.
The Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative is a Canadian non-profit organization that was created by Sam DeLenardo and Krista Van Slingerland in 2014. The organization was formed to increase awareness around student-athletes mental health.
“I have a masters in health communication from the University of Ottawa,” says DeLenardo. “At the same time I was playing for the women’s hockey team.”
“Mental health was starting to become a little more visible in the general public. At the same time my brother developed a pretty severe mental illness.”
“I did not recognize what was going on. I knew something was wrong, but I had no idea that it might be something related to a mental illness.”
Experiencing mental illness first hand with someone she was so close to was an eye opener for DeLenardo. She became more curious about the subject and how it was being dealt with in the sporting realm.
She started asking herself questions, “What is going on? Have we even talked about this at the sport level before?”
When looking at the research on the issue of mental wellness in athletics the majority of was based around performance. It was about how an athlete could use mental skills to improve in their sport, but not looking at how they could improve their overall health.
“That led me to look specifically at how mental health stigma operates in a sports setting,” explains DeLenardo. “I wasn’t satisfied with just doing a study I wanted to see if we were to do a mental health campaign for student-athletes – in this case it was football players – what that would look like?”
“That was my master’s thesis.”
Her work brought about an unexpected connection. Van Slingerland, a varsity basketball player, contacted DeLenardo after reading her thesis.
“My co-founder Krista Van Slingerland was struggling with her own mental health and had a fairly negative experience while she was in school and competing. She read my thesis and that is how we connected.”
“That is how SAMHI was born. We connected and wanted to do something about it. We created a platform and the rest is history.”
SAMHI’s biggest initiative to date is their campus team program. Campus teams are created to increase awareness and advocate for greater support for student-athletes that are being challenged with their mental health.
“We started with the blog and creating a platform for student-athletes,” says DeLenardo. “In year two we had a lot of athletes saying; ‘How can we get involved?’”
That is how the campus team program was created.
“That is still how we get people involved.”
Currently SAMHI has 15 campus teams with over 300 members.
One of the things that DeLenardo is most excited about is that the movement is being initiated by those actively involved with sport at their respective Universities. “That is what is amazing, it is driven from the ground level. It is not us going out and saying you should have a campus team.”
SAMHI has had student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors and support staff contact them about starting campus teams.
“It is usually something they have gone through themselves or they have a teammate that has gone through it. They want to make a difference and want to be part of something and be part of the movement.”
For a campus team to be created an individual connected to sport at their school contacts SAMHI and are provided with the resources necessary to get things off the ground.
“We provide them with a handbook of what the steps are to get started. There is a loose curriculum around what they can do. It is meant to be flexible, but we offer advice and ideas for activities.”
Once a campus team is created they are encouraged to partner with other mental health providers on the campus. The goal to make an easier path for student-athletes to get help.
“We really encourage them to partner with people who are doing similar work. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, we are trying to provide more access for student-athletes.”
As an organization they have also aligned with other mental health advocacy groups, “This year we partnered with jack.org a national leader in mental health advocacy. They were very generous and provided us with a training package that they have for their chapters.”
“They have similar chapters set up at different universities, colleges and even high schools.”
Once a campus team is formed they are encouraged to start small with things such as getting involved with their school’s mental health awareness campaigns or running an event such as a yoga night for student-athletes.
When campus teams have been up and running for a longer period of time there are more complex projects they can take on.
“A more advanced team that has really strong relationships within the campus and the athletic department might look at doing something more like offering trainings.”
“Memorial University last year got all of their student-athlete coaches to be trained in ASIST, which is intervention skills training.”
“Another piece of work that we have suggested this year is advocating for and being part of an integrated wellness team on their campus. The idea is that there are a lot of resources that student-athletes can access, but there hasn’t been the coordinated or integrated approach.”
The vision is to have a student-athlete’s support staff work together to make it easier from them to address their mental health. Encouraging the people student-athletes work with such as nutritionists, sport medicine doctors, sport psychologists, trainers and strength and conditioning coaches to come together with this common goal.
“Bringing them to the table and saying what do we have on campus, ‘What are some of the issues we need to address?’ How can we improve it and work with other pieces of the school?’”
The first evolution SAMHI went through was going from being a blog to having campus teams. The next step is developing webinars that build awareness, bring different populations together and make getting help more accessible to student-athletes.
“It was really exciting because we were able to pilot three webinars partnering with Ball State University,” said DeLenardo. “The focus for the first three was looking more at the different perspectives all the people who are involved in this could bring.”
The first webinar focused on the student-athlete and had individuals share their stories.
The second was from the coaching perspective. Providing them with guidance in what to look for, what their role is in this area and how they can help.
The third was from the health care providers perspective. Looking at what they are seeing from a clinical standpoint.
In the final webinar there was a lot of discussion on how health care providers can work with this unique demographic, “Sometimes a provider might say maybe you should quit your sport because that seems to be the source of your stress. For a lot of student athletes that is not an option. (It is) how can they facilitate a return to play or recovery program while staying involved in their sport.”
“The vision for that is continuing to bring those expert voices to the table. There are a lot of people that have different perspectives, background and expertise. So we want to continue the webinar series.”
Student-athletes live in a very unique environment where there is an enormous amount of pressure on them. Many do not feel they can speak up without looking weak or letting people down. Because of organizations like SAMHI this is changing. Increasing awareness and education along with building a strong and supportive community is an amazing way to start helping student-athletes to be more open with what they are going through.
SAMHI is a charitable organization is you would like to support them you can do so here.
To find out more about SAMHI you can visit their website at samhi.ca.