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SUNYAC SAAC continues push for mental health awareness at 2019 Spring Retreat

SUNYAC SAAC continues push for mental health awareness at 2019 Spring Retreat

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Student-athletes within the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) are dedicated to raising mental health awareness, and eliminating the stigma across all SUNYAC campuses. It has been their mission since the fall retreat in September, and after participating in the spring retreat in Syracuse this past week, SAAC members aquired more strategies to bring back to campus.

SAAC is a group that every conference and member institution is mandated to have by NCAA legislation. The committee consists of student-athlete representatives nominated by their team. On the institutional level they are able to work with their advisor, usually someone in the athletic department, or a coach to provide insight and concerns on the student-athlete experience at their respective schools. In addition, on the conference level for the SUNYAC, the SAAC offers representatives from each school direct communication with the conference office giving them the ability to address any issues they might be facing on campus as student-athletes as well as having an input on the rules, regulations and policies that affect student-athletes. 

The retreat began Sunday afternoon with the students' arrival and a chance to get to meet and know each other through icebreakers. By late afternoon, in order to provide a team building opportunity, the group was treated to a fun-filled adventure at "Escape the Mystery Room", located at the nearby Destiny USA Mall in Syracuse. This was an opportunity for the student's to let loose, have fun, and get to know each other before their big agenda the next day.  

When Monday morning came around, the student-athletes rolled up their sleeves and got right to business, continuing to discuss ways to improve their mental health awareness initiative. "We're really taking the motto 'Shatter the Stigma' to heart with this," SUNYAC SAAC Executive Board President Matt Norris explained.

Norris, a Cortland senior, along with other members of SAAC groups across SUNYAC institutions, admit that despite their efforts back in the fall, rolling out their plan has been a bumpy start.

"I think it's definitely had a slow start for us. We're having some difficulties actually getting the students on board with it," Geneseo senior and SAAC member Emily Young shared.
"It was a little difficult at first, just because it is a very heavy topic," Norris added. "Not a lot of athletes want to talk about their health."
But despite some turbulence, there's a silver lining, and some progress has indeed been made - as more people are beginning to have a conversation about the subject of mental health. "Slowly, we're getting faculty ready to work with us, everyone agrees it's definitely an issue, it's something we need to address," Young said.
"Now that it's been decided that it's a big deal, people are actually starting to have conversations," New Paltz sophomore and SAAC member Kristin Lasker shared.
The SAAC has been working at using social media campaigns, 'Green out Games', and other initiatives like 'Mental Health Mondays' to raise mental health awareness. But at the Spring Retreat, they found out they may need a new strategy and approach to achieve better success. Explaining more about how to do this was Dr. Jerimy Blowers, an associate professor and Coordinator of Wellness and Intervention Services at Cayuga Community College.
"Asking for help with a physical injury is hard enough; asking for mental help is even harder," he said. Blowers explained how student-athletes are prone to things like depression, eating disorders, and mental health issues in general. He said initiatives the SAAC is working on, like 'Mental Health Mondays', may need to be rebranded differently to make it easier to break any stigmas, which athletes may think makes them look weak. "Athletes are trained to hide what they perceive as weakness, where they don't want to talk about it, it's not something to talk about, so I'm going to hide it and I'm going to suffer in silence." 
Blowers also explained that school counselors' hours often don't mesh well with the schedules of student-athletes; another obstacle in getting help with their mental condition. He says if student-athletes suffering from mental health issues don't get help, it takes its toll on the field. "What goes through your head and your mental health and your status, all impacts your performance," Blowers shared. "So if you're not operating at your full potential mentally, you're not operating at your full potential physically."
SAAC members say they're now ready to make the mental health conversation even bigger across the SUNYAC, to get student-athletes more comfortable with the subject. "I think the biggest thing you can do is continue to spread awareness," SUNYAC SAAC Executive Board Cabinet Alternate Connor Lewis, a Cortland junior, said. "That conversation isn't really going to continue to go on until people are comfortable talking about it."
"When someone can feel that comfort with you, it makes it that much easier for them to open up and to truly express what they're feeling and what they're going through," added Buffalo State junior and SAAC member Gino Bonagura.
And with their unique platform as a voice for student-athletes, along with being student-athletes themselves, this group is even more determined to 'Shatter the Stigma'. "People are inspired to go back to their campuses and do big things in working toward mental health," SUNYAC SAAC Executive Board Cabinet Alternative Eimile O'Brien, a junior at Buffalo State, explained.
"We learned how to help ourselves, teammates. Kind of how other people helps us, and what we can do in the future just as a community, as a campus," added Oswego senior Natalie Horton, who serves on the Executive Board as the Vice President of Community Engagement.
"Having all these schools bond together and have one common mission is really great and gives us a lot of momentum going forward," Cortland senior Alaina Lynch explained. Lynch is the Executive Board's Vice President of Legislation.
Some current Executive Board members will be graduating in the spring, ushering in some new faces who will serve in their place. Current Board members remain confident that these new members will succeed in continuing to progress their critical initiative. "I think the new Board and the new SAAC reps are going to do very well next year, we have a good head on our shoulders right now," Horton said.
"Hopefully by next year we have a full plan in place and we're ready to go with our mental health initiative," added Brockport junior Reilly Workman, who serves as the Executive Board's Vice President of Communications.
"I'm really excited just to finish out my tenure as president," Norris shared. "And I know that next year's board is really going to do awesome things."
Day two also featured a discussion about the conference's involvement with the Special Olympics and other SUNYAC SAAC events. At the conclusion of day two, group leaders initiated the nominating and voting process for current SAAC representatives wanting to run for Executive Board leadership positions for the upcoming 2019-20 campaign year.
At the end of the retreat the student-athletes said their goodbyes to each other and headed back to their campuses. Once they are back on their campuses, the student-athletes will continue to serve as ambassadors with their new set of tools and resources in breaking the stigma on mental health.

2019-2020 Board of Directors

From left to right: James Hennessy (New Paltz) - Cabinet Alternate, James Hartunian (Plattsburgh) - Vice President of Legislation, Connor Lewis (Cortland) - President, Reilly Workman (Brockport) - Vice President of Communications, Kristen Lasker (New Paltz) - Vice President of Community Engagement, Brianna Lawless (Brockport) - Cabinet Alternate


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