‘Everybody goes through it’

A look at the importance of mental health among student-athletes

Claire Boughton / Sports Editor

When it comes to mental health, 2020 has been a year that has challenged us all for a multitude of different reasons. One group of people who have dealt with unforeseen changes and unfortunate circumstances this year have been student-athletes all across the country, and the student-athletes here at Keene State College have been no exception to that statement.

With spring sports being cut short in March and fall sports being cancelled in July, it’s safe to say that KSC student-athletes have endured their fair share of mental and emotional struggles over the past six months.

Phil Racicot, the Director of Athletics and Recreation at Keene State, said that the mental health of student-athletes has always been important to keep track of because of the amount of activities they have to balance.

“Mental health is a factor and issue that everyone deals with,” Racicot said. “From an athletics standpoint, there’s that added dimension. Athletics, for most people that get to this point, is part of their identity. When they come into college it’s like, ‘Okay, how do I establish my new identity as a college athlete?’ Then on the other hand, as students become seniors and are looking at transitioning into life beyond athletics, that also induces some questions and stress.”

“Student-athletes are balancing a lot,” Racicot continued. “You’re taking a stressful situation in being a college student and you’re adding onto it almost another full-time job. I don’t want to say job, but it’s a lot of time, effort, commitment and hours. They also want to not just perform, but perform well at a higher level. There’s certainly a lot involved. It’s a delicate balance.”

However, this year in particular has been challenging for student-athletes who are seniors, as they are having to go their final year of college knowing their sports season has been cancelled or fearing that it may be.

“Even when someone’s a freshman, you have a really finite number of opportunities athletically,” said Racicot. “This is it, this is four years. Then, when you’re a senior, it’s even more so. In order to give these students, especially seniors, the opportunity to go out there and do what they love is important.”

Jaylen Franklin, a senior guard on the KSC men’s basketball team, said that senior student-athletes are also in a tough spot because of their impending transition into the working world is happening during a pandemic.

“I think seniors are in a more delicate place because everyone will go their separate ways in a few months,” Franklin said. “One way I’ve struggled is wondering what my life will look like after college. I’m sure seniors in general struggle with that, asking themselves, ‘Am I making the right decisions? Will it all work out? Will I put this degree to use?’ I want to do better for myself and my family. Those are questions I’ve been challenged with. Seniors should be given the most attention, they’re about to enter a world with COVID-19 where nothing is familiar. The fact we’re entering that at such a delicate time in our lives is scary. Seniors need to sit down and think and prepare properly.”

Although the year 2020 has been a struggle, Franklin said that he personally is handling life during the pandemic better than he thought he would.

“I’m doing better than I expected to be doing,” Franklin said. “Similar to everyone else, we didn’t know what to expect. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten more comfortable. The rules and regulations aren’t too strict or overbearing. I’m grateful for that and that everyone at Keene State has taken it seriously and are taking the necessary precautions to make sure there’s a basketball season.”

The athletics department and Keene State College as a whole offers multiple resources that allow student-athletes to get help whenever they need it, with any mental health obstacles they may be facing. Racicot said that the athletics department is very involved in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and works closely with the Wellness Center at Keene State.

“We do a lot of work with the CARES program on campus,” Racicot said. “We actually have two coaches who are on the CARES committees. Amy Watson in particular, she’s our field hockey coach and she also is a member of the mental health CARES committee on campus, which is really important for us.”

“We also have our Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC),” Racicot continued. “Carrah Fisk Hennessey who is our softball coach is also the SAAC Advisor. They’re an awesome group. We have student-athletes from every team that are members of that committee. They talk all the time about mental health and what it’s like to be a student-athlete. We actually plug in a couple representatives from our SAAC to the Student Support Network on campus, and they go through that training with members of the Wellness Center and the Counseling Center staff. So we make sure we have student-athletes that are trained to recognize mental health issues and communicate. We have meetings with all of our teams about the importance of mental health.”

Carrah Fisk Hennessey, the KSC SAAC Advisor, said that SAAC offers student-athletes plenty of opportunities to educate themselves about mental health.

“There are a ton of resources from the NCAA and from national SAAC that we are starting to filter out,” Hennessey said. “One of them is the Sports Science Institute Mental Health Education Resources. There are a lot of different things students can do at their own discretion, we don’t have to know about it. They don’t have to feel vulnerable in front of their coaches unless they’re comfortable feeling vulnerable in front of their coaches. We understand that it’s a big deal not having this giant part of who you are and who you’ve identified as. It’s a big deal, so we’re working on it.”

As a student at Keene State, Franklin said that he thinks the college and athletics department do a good job at offering mental health aid to students.

“I think we have great resources,” Franklin said. “From my experience dealing with counseling, it’s a big resource just having somebody you know and can talk to. They won’t share your business or judge you, you can just go and let it out whether it’s good, bad or ugly. I think it’s one of the best resources student-athletes have at their disposal.”

Even though this semester has forced difficult adjustments upon the lives of student-athletes, the majority of student-athletes at Keene State are staying positive and finding sources of light during these dark times.

“I’m so proud of them, the coaches and the students,” Racicot said. “In the past, you would take going to practice for granted. It was, ‘I have to go to practice today.’ Now the attitude that I see in talking with students is, ‘I get to go to practice today.’ There’s a really big difference between saying I have to and I get to. When the sports made that move from working together in a pod of three to now working together in a pod of nine, that was genuinely exciting and motivating. Now we want to get to the next step. I think, overall, they’re doing really well, all things considered.”

“I think that there’s a level of excitement and a level of responsibility that hasn’t really been there in the past,” Hennessey said. “I don’t want that to sound bad, everyone’s always excited to come back and to play, but I think there’s a bigger attitude of gratitude that’s happening now. People are thankful, which changes things. They’re more apt to jump in and get right into things when it may have been a little bit of a struggle before. They’ve come back more fit, they’re taking responsibility for themselves, they’re holding their teammates accountable because they want to stay here and they want this to be able to work.”

“I just know it’s a bigger plan beyond me,” Franklin said. “We’re not in control, but life can change in a moment, good or bad. So I keep that in mind and do what I think is best for me and [my] family. I think of my mom and dad and the sacrifices they’ve made. I think of where I’ve come from, Springfield [Massachusetts] is not a place where a lot of people come from and go to college and graduate, and I think I’m right there. So that keeps me going through this journey.”

While the world is slowly finding ways to safely return to normal during the fall semester, the mental health of student-athletes will still continue to be an important topic of conversation.

“It’s really important for us to pay attention,” Racicot said. “We have an awesome coaching staff, athletic training staff, strength and conditioning [staff]. Everyone’s really tuned in to student-athletes and how they’re feeling, what they’re going through physically, mentally and emotionally. Those are things that we talk a lot about as a staff. We’re always checking to make sure that our students are doing okay. We try to make them feel good about being honest and telling us if they’re having any struggles, problems or concerns. If individuals do have some issues, we want to have a culture that’s engaged enough to address them. We’re not the experts, but we can certainly do our part to make sure that students get the help that they need from the experts that we have on campus. It’s really about having a culture that’s supportive.”

“Mental health is honestly what it’s all about right now,” Hennessey said. “We at Keene State are super fortunate. There are so many other schools that don’t have the opportunity to even be on campus or in person, so we don’t take that lightly. We are very appreciative of the opportunity to not only be here but to actually participate in our sports, even though it looks completely different than it has before. Our fall seasons were cancelled, but fall teams are still able to practice and we’re hoping to get some kind of competition date between Plymouth State and Rhode Island College in the middle of October. This year, what COVID has done for us, and there are very few perks, is that it has allowed coaches and teams to determine how we use our 114 days that we’re able to be together. The fact that we are able to participate and practice has been a giant boost for the mental health of our student-athletes.”

“I just want people to know that everybody goes through it, whether they show it or not,” Franklin said. “We all have our own different personal challenges we have to battle, but it all looks the same. People should understand they’re not alone and that there’s resources available to them to get help.”

 

Matt Holderman can be contacted at:

mholderman@kscequinox.com

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