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The Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative
1 in 5 Canadians struggle with mental illness and this includes athletes. The Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) focuses on supporting post-secondary student athletes no matter what they are going through. mindyourmind interviewed the president and co-founder of SAMHI, Samantha DeLenardo.
Why is it important that student athlete mental health is recognized?
Student-athletes are a unique sub-population of youth and emerging adults who face specific stressors and pressures that can affect their mental health or make an existing illness more difficult to manage. There is a lot of pressure in the sport world to be mentally tough to compete at high levels on a consistent basis, so the stigma and discrimination that surrounds something like a mental illness can be devastating for an athlete’s sense of identity and worth. We need to recognize these challenges that exist within the sport culture, so people don’t struggle in silence.
How did SAMHI come to be developed and what is the initiative?
SAMHI was born out of the very real need to start talking about these issues in the postsecondary sport community. Both co-founders are former student-athletes and had experiences that lent to the development of the organization, which really started as a blog platform to share stories. It grew into a not-for-profit charity with over 200 student-athletes volunteer advocates working on their campuses to eliminate stigma, educate and support their peers and coaches. You can read more about it at here.
What is your role at SAMHI and how is that experience?
I am a co-founder and the president, and I do this in my spare time while working full-time at a mental health and addictions hospital. In this role, I oversee the strategic direction and operations of the organization, build relationships and partnerships with stakeholders and coordinate the wonderful volunteers who help me manage the enormous workload. It’s been quite a ride so far and I am so proud to see where the organization has come in five years. I know there is a ton of work to do, but I see student-athletes coming forward, giving up the little bit of spare time they have to help with the initiative, and to me, that speaks volumes.
Do you see stigma surrounding mental health still part of the culture of sports?
Yes, absolutely. I see shifts from the work we and others are doing, but it’s still deeply ingrained. It’s important to understand that stigma is really something that is socially constructed and goes way back in our history as a means to protect group survival. For example, when someone was outside of the group norms and perceived not to contribute to the overall goal of a group, stigma processes were used to essentially separate, devalue and ostracize that person. So, you can see how in a team setting like sport, with a very specific goal of winning and very strong power and hierarchical dynamics, that stigma has an opportunity to thrive. And yes, realistically, someone who is struggling with their mental health will not be able to perform at the optimal level. But the same can be said for someone who hasn’t put in the work in the gym, hasn’t fuelled their bodies properly, hasn’t gotten enough sleep. So, we should be looking at an athlete’s mental health proactively and as a fundamental resource for optimal performance and life, not as as afterthought or something to use against them when they hide their illness and get so sick they can’t function.
This year a lot of athletes are starting to share their mental health struggles publicly like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan. Has this made an impact with young athletes?
I think so, for sure. We know that sharing personal stories works as a means to start conversations, to help educate people, and when it’s coming from someone with celebrity status, the impact can be amplified. I want to mention that we’ve had a lot of athletes come forward as well and you can read their stories on our website. It makes you feel less alone. Dealing with something that is typically stigmatized, regardless of what it is, can be a lonely, isolating experience. But through the experiences of others we can gain some perspective, some hope, and most of all compassion and empathy for those around us.
What is the common misconceptions about student athletes and how they handle stress or mental illness?
I think athletes make it look easy and they are so thrilling to watch, but what many people are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg - the performance. And a lot of value is placed on the performance and the outcome, so it’s easy to forget this is just a person and that underneath all of that is a sea of pressure, stress, sacrifice, commitment, joy, sadness, love, fear, and so on. A common misconception could be that these individuals are somewhat impervious to stress or a mental illness, and I think a lot of athletes don’t think it can happen to them, or that to acknowledge it is a weakness, so there’s a lot of fear, denial and shame that comes with that, too.
Does SAMHI have any involvement with younger athletes or do outreach with young athletes who are also dealing with these issues?
We get asked a lot to work with high school athletes, but we simply aren’t resourced to handle a new population at this time, although I completely agree that starting younger is critical. I do know that some of our Campus Teams, those are the student-athletes volunteers I mentioned, will go out in their community and speak to young athletes. It’s really exciting to see their initiative.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am incredibly proud of the Campus Team program we created. We had so many student-athletes coming forward asking how they could help, and this was the only logical way to mobilize their energy and desire to help. It’s a huge endeavour with multiple schools and schedules, finding the balance between autonomy and direction, ordering and shipping out their materials, doing training and meetings throughout the year. I couldn’t do it without my coordinator, Cass Sparks - she’s been a rock through this whole process.
What is in store for the future of SAMHI?
Right now, we are staying on course and working at getting better at the things we are already doing. I am really focused on creating partnerships with organizations and groups that will help grow SAMHI in a sustainable way. I would love to see a Campus Team at every university and college. Eventually, I would love a situation where regular mental health programming was built into every athletic department and the Campus Team members could shift more fully into a peer support role, which is where I really think the value is. We can’t underestimate the positive and upstream impact of peer-to-peer programming.
Thank you Samantha for taking time to answer our questions!
mindyourmind speaks with advocates, authors, musicians, athletes and other people about their own opinions and life experiences.