By Aidan Lavin and Megan Hoffmann
For Marist student-athletes, the focus has always been on physical training, yet with concerns being raised about mental health, this focus has shifted.
“Everyone has mental health,” said Alyssa Gates, the director of student-athlete enhancement at Marist College. “We all need to look at it; we all need to understand it,” said Gates.
Recently, professional athletes have become more vocal and vulnerable regarding their mental health. In turn, sports have become more accepting of psychological factors that weigh on athletes. In decades prior, mental health concerns were often left on the backburner compared to how physical expectations were prioritized.
“There is this idea that mental health isn’t as important as physical health and that the physicality of sport is really where the focus should be,” said Gates.
While prominent professional athletes’ advocation for mental health awareness – like Kevin Love, Michael Phelps and Serena Williams – has changed the narrative in sports on a larger public scale, Gates wants more advocacy for the mental health of student-athletes at Marist.
This goal has prompted her, along with many others in the Marist athletic department, to begin promoting mental health awareness through an app called Athlete Talk.
“There’s a lot of stigma around mental health. Sometimes going and talking about your feelings makes you feel weak or uncomfortable,” said women’s basketball graduate student center Maeve Donnelly. “This is a[n option] before you think you’re struggling and need help, but you don’t feel ready to speak to someone; [It] gets you ready for that step if you do need to take it.”
Athlete Talk was launched in the fall of 2022 and is focused solely on mental health for student-athletes on campuses throughout the nation. The app is laid out like a social media timeline to entice student-athletes to use it.
Within the app, there are short pieces of content that work in cohesion with the often short attention span of college students, as well as around 80 long-form videos and articles on topics that can range from sleep deprivation and nutrition to social justice. Along with the diverse array of content available on Athlete Talk, there is a journaling feature on the app that allows student-athletes to write down their thoughts confidentially, encouraging them to be open with themselves about what they are dealing with.
While the concept of Athlete Talk is well thought out, the challenge lies in accumulating users and engagement. According to Gates, since Marist launched the app in October 2022, it has been difficult to get student-athletes involved. However, new features on Athlete Talk may entice them to use the app more.
“It’s not that we don’t want to use [Athlete Talk]; it’s just that we’re struggling to figure out how to give it to athletes without pushing it on them,” said former women’s rower Molly O’Donoghue. “No one needs anything more added onto their plate, so we need to casually integrate it… I do think some athletes are using it, but I don’t think everyone realizes the impact it could have.”
In addition to Athlete Talk, Gates proudly explained that they’ve created a group of student-athlete mental health representatives at Marist, known as the Student-Athlete Wellness Advocates (SAWA). Members will attempt to push their teammates to use and engage with Athlete Talk.
O’Donoghue was a member of the crew team her freshman year and was immediately intrigued by SAWA from the moment it was introduced. She has since left rowing but is still involved with SAWA as the only non-athlete member.
“I left [rowing] because of my mental health and physical health. I didn’t feel like there was anyone to invest in me and prioritize my health,” said O’Donoghue.
This lonely feeling kept O’Donoghue from abandoning the issue of student-athlete mental health at Marist. Not only is she a member of SAWA, but she also exudes her passion for mental health awareness on the Student Government Association’s Student Well-Being Board.
Donnelly is another SAWA member who, like O’Donoghue, has been a part of it from the start. In 2022, Donnelly transferred from the University of Hawaii and immediately made a positive impact on student-athlete mental health advocacy at Marist.
“It was disheartening to hear that when I came here, there were no mental health professionals available for some athletes because I think that’s part of taking your game to the next level,” said Donnelly.
“When I came here last summer, I approached Gates and told her that I think we should have a group of student-athletes to advocate for mental health on campus,” said Donnelly. “[Gates said,] ‘I think you’re right, let’s make that happen.’ So we’ve spent the past year getting athletes, getting support, trying to spread what this is and what we’re trying to do.”
Donnelly and the representatives for each respective team are not just spokespeople for Athlete Talk; they are more importantly seen as resources for struggling teammates and help them overcome tough times. SAWA representatives also hold meetings that allow them to discuss issues on their respective teams anonymously. SAWA establishes a support system for student-athletes on and off the field if they are looking for or need help.
“This year, the group has been kind of official. [Recently], we had our first training where someone from the Counseling Center came in and did a training with us on peer counseling,” said Donnelly. “[We learned] how to tell when your peers are struggling, but also how to not take on too much because our biggest thing is we are not certified or professional, but we just want to help people out.”
Since the creation of the group with just the six female student-athletes, there has been significant growth; now, all Marist Division I teams are accounted for with SAWA representatives.
“For the most part, a lot of [women’s teams] are really good about being open about mental health problems. But some men’s [teams] struggle with it because of the classic, ‘Oh, you’re a man, you shouldn’t have feelings and you shouldn’t be feeling this way.’ But I think a lot of our male athletes do struggle,” said Donnelly.
With all teams accounted for, SAWA representatives now hope to make a lasting impact.
“The hope is that this group gains more of a presence, becomes more empowered, certainly doesn’t feel the pressure of being the team’s therapist or counselor, but just serves as a conduit to get them to the next place,” said Gates.
Representatives have taken on numerous tasks to accomplish this mission. These range from helping solicit and select guest speakers, to attending and organizing workshops and providing access to essential resources that help players to appropriately aid their teammates.
“Ultimately, we want this to be a known thing,” said Gates of both SAWA and Athlete Talk.
Last spring, with the help of SAWA representatives, Marist brought in Dr. Angel Brutus, who works for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee as a mental health professional. Dr. Brutus came in March 2023 to speak to student-athletes and coaches.
So far, they have made significant progress. Considering they are still in the early stages, the foundation is solid and has been set, but O’Donoghue is not satisfied and believes there are basic needs that must be met by the Marist Athletics Department moving forward.
“I feel we’re dancing around the subject a bit,” said O’Donoghue. “I think that we need to bring a mental health professional into the department… someone who knows how to work with athletes. We’ve kind of been dancing around it with Athlete Talk.”
The counselors available to the entire Marist student body are the same professionals available to student-athletes, who frequently experience a markedly different reality compared to non-athlete students.
Student-athletes adhere to demanding schedules, with practices and games occurring alongside their classes. A dedicated mental health professional could create cohesion for student-athletes that enables them to balance their responsibilities as students and athletes, and not just one or the other.
“Something that we see a lot, and when [our athletes] go onto the real world, they struggle because they have identified solely as a student-athlete,” said Gates. “[They] haven’t seen what other skills they have and what they bring to the table because they’re so caught up in that athletic identity.”
Athlete Talk and the SAWA representatives hope to help Marist student-athletes be seen for more than just their on-field performance and remind them they are more than just athletes.
“I’m just hoping people use [Athlete Talk] as a resource, something that they can fall back on,” said O’Donoghue. “If they’re having a bad day and they’re just in their head about it, they know that they have that app on their phone.”
Edited by Sam Murphy and Luke Sassa
Graphic by Cara Lacey