While student athletes often see January as the start to the second half to their OUA season, it also becomes a time to speak about mental health.
For the month of January, Queen’s Athletics has taken part in the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. With their new campaign #OneTeamForMentalHealth, student athletes are focusing on mental health.
In the United States, athletic departments have begun to tackle stigma and Ontario universities are following suit. The NCAA’s website states that student athletes have an increased risk for mental health issues. Student athletes aren’t only exposed to the risk factors that the average university student faces — such as substance abuse, peer pressure and academic stress — but are also exposed to an additional set of risk factors, such as performance pressures and time demands.
Nina Dauvergne, the president of the Queen’s triathlon team, believes that the increased risks student athletes face warrant increased discussion in the athletics community. “Mental health is such a broad topic. I think certain things are easy to talk about and then other things rarely get addressed,” Dauvergne said.
Dauvergne particularly noted the occurrences of eating disorders in athletes that are rarely addressed. “A lot of athletes struggle with eating disorders and that can range in so many spectrums from being super regimented about your food, to not putting certain things in your body and going just a little too far with that and that’s never really addressed.”
Dauvergne says that while Queen’s Athletics and Recreation does provide resources, they aren’t actively discussed throughout the season. “They do tell everyone who has eligibility all the different resources that are available to them, but it never really gets touched on again,” Dauvergne said.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find those resources and they’re limited. As much as there’s tutors and as much as there’s counsellors, you get your little piece of the cake and that’s it.”
Dauvergne says that the mentality of athletes can also be damaging. “As an athlete, you want to be the best in your sport, you want to be the best in the classroom.”
“It can be hard to look in the mirror and say ‘I need a day off, or a week off.’ It’s hard to give yourself that as an athlete when you’re trying to hold yourself to that standard.”
Will McArthur, a second-year Engineering student on the men’s rugby team, agreed that athletes tend to put a lot of stress on themselves to perform to their absolute best. “We expect a lot of ourselves, and that puts a lot of stress on ourselves to begin with.”
McArthur also says that the spectator nature of sports at Queen’s can be stressful. “When we have a Homecoming game, we have 100 to 200 people in the stands, we get big crowds. When you drop a ball, miss a pass or just mess up, it’s tough.”
“I know people on our team who’ll mess up and be talking about it for two-three days after and I can’t imagine what that does to them school-wise, relationship-wise, or socially. You can see how it affects someone.”
In McArthur’s experience, it takes his male peers a long time to feel comfortable opening up about mental health issues. “One of my best friends, a regular dude, really smart, really athletic, I’d call him a tough guy … it took him a year and a bit to tell me something really important that he’s been going through.”
In recent years, the founders of Queen’s for the Boys (QFTB) have been working to make mental health a topic that’s more widely discussed on campus and help promote resources available to students when they notice a friend’s unwillingness to open up about mental health issues. QFTB originally sprung out of Movember initiatives and therefore focused on men’s mental health more than women’s, before they evolved to include a perspective on women’s mental health as well.
Geordie Knowles, the director of policy of QFTB, explained the shift in the group’s focus from male students to all students was a logical next step. “We realized there’s no way to help guys out without helping girls. So the main idea is that it’s students helping students.”
Knowles and others involved with QFTB have also broadened their focus to student athletes as well. Knowles said the decision came from the realization that athletes often need more support than they’re given, specifically referencing the story of Terry Tafford. Tafford — a 20-year-old OHL hockey player at the time — committed suicide after being let go by his team in the middle of the 2014 season.
This year, QFTB partnered with the Varsity Leadership Council (VLC) to help promote resources to student athletes. Knowles stressed how open the VLC has been about talking about mental health and how supportive they were of QFTBs mission.
QFTB has found through their research that 65 per cent of men at Queen’s don’t know where to find help if they ever experience a mental health issue. Knowles wants to see that number drop.
“The message needs to be bombarded upon everyone,” Knowles said. “There’s no difference between mental illness and physical illness besides stigma. Until it’s fully accepted by everyone, there’s going to be people who are unwilling or nervous to come forward with problems.”
Knowles said he would be happy if QFTB no longer needed to exist. “The long term goal is just that we don’t need to exist anymore. Hopefully, we get to a point eventually where all of us aren’t needed, people know where to go for help, people are willing to talk about it, they can just say ‘hey, I have a problem.’”
“The first step is talking about it,” Knowles said.
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