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Student-led project addresses issue of mental illness in varsity sport

Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative offers mental health resources for athletes and coaches.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | JAN 13 2016
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University of Ottawa student-athelete Krista Van Slingerland helped create a national mental health initiative for varsity atheletes. Photo credit: Richard A. Whittaker

Anastasia’s story, Glynndon’s story, Krista’s story.  Stories are at the heart of The Huddle, a blog launched in 2014 as part of the Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI), a student-led organization that offers mental health planning materials and programming for athletes and coaches. “This isn’t just one person’s issue, or one group’s issue,” says SAMHI co-founder Samantha DeLenardo. “The coaches, the staff and the institution [also] have a responsibility to make the environment safe for student athletes to reach out for help.”

Ms. DeLenardo, who earned her master’s degree at the University of Ottawa while lacing up as a forward for the Gee-Gees varsity hockey team, says she developed the framework for SAMHI in tandem with her thesis on strategic communications, mental health and varsity football players. “SAMHI was created because there is no national voice for student athletes on this issue,” Ms. DeLenardo says.

The blog continues to be a place for sharing personal experiences about balancing – or failing to balance – mental illness and the particular demands placed on student athletes: training 25 to 30 hours a week plus games on weekends and evenings, on top of the usual pressures of school and life. The expectation that student athletes possess a particular kind of “mental toughness” can also be a trap. That was the message behind a powerful post by Krista Van Slingerland, SAMHI’s other co-founder and a master’s student in human kinetics at U of O. A guard for the Gee-Gees varsity basketball team and a former undergraduate athlete at Carleton University, she recounts how, as her clinical depression spiraled into disordered eating and self-harm, she continued to push herself to perform on the court. Ultimately she was asked to leave the team. A few months later she contemplated taking her own life. While it was difficult for her to make such personal stories public, Ms. Van Slingerland hoped it might help other athletes.

In addition to the blog, SAMHI’s programming centrepiece is the Mental Health Matchup – events that range from guest speakers to pub nights facilitated by SAMHI-trained student athlete volunteers, or “champions,” who serve as on-campus resources and guides for teammates in need. Karen Murphy, director of varsity athletics at Memorial University, for one, welcomes the initiative. The athletes, she says, “are putting in a lot of effort.  They’ve made this a priority so it’s important for us to support it.”

While mental health is increasingly recognized as a significant issue on university campuses, Ms. DeLenardo says a culture of “sucking it up” persists in sport. She wants to change that.  “Despite your physical strength and your ability to be mentally tough, mental illness still happens and taking care of your mental health is still something you have to be actively involved in,” she says.

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