SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Student-athletes within the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) are gearing up for a major campaign to raise mental health awareness, and stomp out the stigma that's attached to it for student-athletes across SUNYAC campuses.
The SUNYAC SAAC is a committee made up of student-athletes assembled to provide insight on the student-athlete experience. The SAAC also offers input on the rules, regulations and policies that affect student-athletes' lives on NCAA member institution campuses.
During the SAAC's retreat in Syracuse Monday, members of the SAAC Executive Board and other student-athletes from SAACs at our 10 member institutions across discussed the importance of mental health among student-athletes, ways to increase awareness about mental health in student athletics, and strategies to make it easier for student-athletes to come forward and get help if they suffer from a problem that affects their mental health. David Buckley, the Director of Advocacy Services for Mental Health America, spoke to SAAC members about mental health, its history, and why it's crucial to step up and make a difference to increasing awareness and encouraging others to get the help they need. Buckley explained that several people with diagnosable mental health problems don't get the help they need, and that can lead to what he calls "self medication." That means those who suffer may turn to alcohol, drugs, and other substance abuse to feel better, but it doesn't solve their problems – if anything, it makes things worse.
SAAC Executive Board President, Matt Norris, said many student-athletes find it tough to address issues they may be facing, like anxiety or depression, that can take a toll on their mental well-being. "A lot of athletes don't feel comfortable talking about anything mental health-related," Norris, a Cortland senior, explained. "Athletes have this idea it makes them weak, or not as strong willed or something like that, if they talk to someone."
"I think that's definitely a big problem that we need to work on moving forward," added Brockport junior Reilly Workman, who serves as the SAAC Executive Board's Vice President of Communications.
Board members say they have a unique platform to make a difference for student-athletes across several campuses, being student-athletes themselves. "It's kind of something really important credibility-wise. We just take it a little more seriously when it's coming from someone who's going through the same thing," SAAC Executive Board Cabinet Alternative and Buffalo State junior Eimile O'Brien, said. "So I think it's pretty awesome we have the platform to do so."
A big part of making a difference involves utilizing social media platforms. "We're going to be running some pretty big social media campaigns. We're going to be doing a few pop up campaigns on campuses also, with the hashtags, #fightintheopen, #mystorymyway, and #lookdeeper," Norris explained. "And each one will have its own meaning which will be taught. We're going to educate people across the campuses and just get athletes across the SUNYAC more comfortable discussing these hard to talk about topics."
SAAC Executive Board members also hope to have 'green out games', where fans wear green at certain games to raise awareness about mental health. Other ideas include forming groups where student-athletes can feel more comfortable talking about mental health among their peers, and making student-athletes more aware of what help is available on their campuses, including who their counselors are. "I think we can definitely do a better job of bridging that gap and bringing the counselors over to the athletic department to definitely help people," Reilly shared. "Because I think student-athletes might be a little afraid to go over there, because no one from the athletic department may be over there, so they're out of their comfort zone."
SAAC members aim to take the different ideas shared and bring them back to their individual campuses. "We're all SUNY schools, but we're all different, so I think it's important that we can all learn something that New Paltz or Oneonta does that I can bring back to Brockport, maybe help our campus grow and become a better place," Reilly explained.
Ways to tackle an ongoing challenge that many athletes across the SUNYAC schools continue to face every day – because as board members say, while on-the-field prowess is important, what happens off the field matters too.
"We're not just athletes. We're students, we're leaders, leaders both on and off the court, mat, field, whatever you play," Norris explained. "We want to make sure that everyone knows it's OK to go out and talk to someone because honestly, that could be the best thing you do."
The Executive Board aims to begin their mental health awareness initiative in October.
Click here to see photos of the retreat: 2018 SUNYAC SAAC Retreat
To watch the recap of the retreat, click the video below.