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Sep 21, 2018
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Senior Tarryn Rennie swimming the butterfly stroke at Fresno State’s Aquatics Center. (Courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)

This Fresno State campaign is promoting mental health awareness among athletes

The Bulldog athletics department has launched the #BulldogBraveBulldogStrong campaign – a social media campaign aimed at addressing mental health among students but especially athletes.

At the heart of the campaign at Fresno State is a short, black and white video featuring Bulldog coaches, athletes and sports medicine staff. It announces that approximately one in five adults experiences mental illness in a given year, and that this rate is highest among college students. The video acknowledges that mental health is not normally talked about in the college sports world.

“Mental health challenges in college athletes is a silent epidemic,” according to the video. “It’s time for it to be seen; it’s time for it to be talked about.”

The video ends with head football coach Jeff Tedford saying the campaign is “to help our student-athletes know they’re ‘Bulldog Brave Bulldog Strong’ when they ask for help and encourage you to do the same.” He concludes, “Seeking help for your mental health is being Bulldog Brave Bulldog Strong.”

Associate athletic director for sports medicine Kelli Eberlein and athlete trainer Sarah Cerami say the Fresno State campaign is inspired by the a campaign started by two Oregon State student-athletes in 2017. It began at Fresno State in mid-July.

Beavers men’s soccer player Nathan Braaten and former gymnast Taylor Ricci “experienced the turmoil of suicide when they each lost a teammate,” according to Oregon State’s Synergies.

“Through personal grief and frustration, the duo put their heads together to brainstorm ideas to bring mental health awareness out into the open,” Synergies added.

They originally planned to sit down for a half-hour. The 30 minutes turned into three hours of drafting a proposal for the #DamWorthIt campaign, which is social media driven. In October 2017, Braaten and Ricci brought their 10-page proposal, which included background information, a vision and mission statement and a detailed execution plan, to Beavers athletics staff and got the buy-in and support they were looking for.

“We wanted this to be a peer-driven initiative and use something we both know well–sports, which is so visible in the community–as a platform to speak about it and bring awareness to the issue,” Braaten said. “Although we’re using sports as the platform, this campaign is for anyone who is looking for hope.”

That’s what Eberlein, Cerami and student-athlete Kaitlyn Jennings hope happens at Fresno State. They say although the campaign targets student-athletes, its message, in reality, applies to every student on campus.

The Oregon State campaign’s message is carried by two current student-athletes, according to Eberlein. She said the message was perfect.

“Only a student-athlete can say to another athlete it’s OK not to be OK and to do something about it,” she said. “There’s a different impact when one of your peers, not an outsider or even your coach, says it.”

Eberlein echoes Braaten’s words. According to him, the fundamental message in the videos is that it is OK not to be OK – and OK to get help.

“We want to end the stigma,” Braaten said. “No one wants to admit they’re not OK and need to talk to someone, but we encourage them to get help. Just in the same way you go to the doctor when you have an injury, when you’re hurting and not OK, talking to someone can help you feel better.”

The #DamWorthIt campaign officially started on Twitter in January 2018 during the week Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski killed himself. Braaten said the timing of the campaign’s launch and Kilinski’s death was coincidental.

Cerami says Ricci is a former teammate of hers. She adds she’s had the opportunity to talk with Ricci about the Beavers’ campaign, and that’s helped develop Fresno State’s version.

Eberlein says Fresno State’s vision of the campaign is different “because we weren’t coming from a place of sorrow and healing like Oregon State was.” She adds she hopes #BulldogBraveBulldogStrong has an impact on high school athletes and coaches in the area as well.

Eberlein says her staff uses a variety of on-and-off-campus services in caring for student-athletes.

“The demands on student-athletes’ time are tremendous, so we use providers who best fit with the athlete’s needs and with time constraints on appointments for example,” Eberlein said.

She contrasted the demands on today’s student-athletes with her time competing in the 1970s. In those years, it was typical for student-athletes to hold down part-time jobs and be involved in campus life along with competing. Eberlein says that today’s athlete doesn’t have the time to do that. Softball player Jennings concurs.

Jennings, who is vice president of the Bulldogs Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, says new student-athletes can experience anxiety and panic attacks from the internal and external demands of playing a sport. She says some of the internal demands stem from social media — ”If you have a bad game, everyone knows it instantly. Nothing you do is unseen.”

Cerami and Jennings agree that for a freshman athlete, the challenges can seem overwhelming.

“As a freshman,” Cerami says, “you’re drowning. You have class and practice. You have a coach you want to please. You have homework and studying. You look at your older teammates, and you think they have it together when, in reality, they might be struggling, too.”

Eberlein adds that the bulk of mental health referrals for student-athletes occur early in their first fall semester on campus.

The Fresno State campaign focuses on three areas: resources, education and awareness.

In the resource area, the plan is to continue to partner with providers, maintain the campaign website and hold group sessions for student-athletes organized by sports medicine and facilitated by Avante Health providers.

Although primarily aimed at student-athletes, the campaign website (www.bulldogbravebulldogstrong.com) has several resources any Fresno State student can use.

Services include the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and Community Behavioral Health Center on Cedar Avenue, north of campus. There’s also a link to the Crisis Text Line. You text to 741741 and are connected to a trained crisis counselor who will message back. The objective is to get the texter to a calm, safe place mentally.

In the education area, annual team sessions focused on resources and suicide prevention training are planned. There are also plans to bring in outside speakers to open up the conversation about mental health and keep it moving forward; and continue to educate staff and coaches on suicide prevention, high risk mental health referrals and navigating difficult conversations, just to name a few areas.

As for awareness, Eberlein says she hopes to make videos in which student-athletes’ personal stories are featured.

“I hope some athletes open up on video telling their stories of being helped,” she said.

Jennings says the student-athletic advisory committee plans to table the campaign at one competition in every sport. Mental health information would be made available about resources available to students on campus and about local resources for the general public. There are also plans to expand the campaign’s social media reach.

The Oregon State campaign has been nationally honored. In April, it received the 2018 Giant Steps Award in the Civic Leaders category from the Institute for Sport and Social Justice (formerly the National Consortium for Academics and Sports).

Then, in May, Braaten and Ricci received the 2018 Waldo-Cummings Award from Oregon State. According to the university, the award is “among the most prestigious honors bestowed by Oregon State University as recipients are chosen on the basis of academic excellence and superior extracurricular achievements during their college careers.”

Ricci is a two-time recipient. She also received the award two years ago.

On May 16, the Pac-12 Conference awarded a grant to Braaten and Ricci to expand the program to the other conference members’ athletic departments and student-athlete advisory committees. It was the only student-created program among the six that were awarded a total of $3 million, according to the release announcing the awards.

Eberlein and Cerami both say Oregon State wants campaigns like #DamWorthIt to spread across the country. Clemson University’s effort focuses on suicide prevention.

The “Tigers Together” campaign targets all students, not just student-athletes on its North Carolina campus. Like the Beavers and Bulldogs, Clemson uses social media heavily. It also has a webpage (www.clemson.edu/suicideprevention) with information links and an online chat capability. As this story is being written, Eberlein says that the University of Colorado is releasing a video the week of July 23.

The Oregon State videos are available on Twitter. They can be viewed at https://twitter.com/OSU_SAAC/status/928281831484555264, https://twitter.com/BeaverAthletics/status/964658010059522048, and https://twitter.com/BeaverAthletics/status/992255632584527874.

The Fresno State campaign’s video is available on YouTube. The link is https://youtu.be/smvghjW12g4.

RESOURCES:

  • If you or someone you know is in a crisis situation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255).
  • For counseling services, visit the Fresno State Student Health and Counseling Center, located at the corner of Barton and Keats avenue on campus. Contact the center at 559-278-2734. Hours are from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Services are limited between noon and 1 p.m.
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