“There’s this persona of needing to be a superhero,” Evan Munn said about athletes. Munn was a leader of Oregon State University’s Dam Worth It campaign last year, a student-led organization that seeks to open the conversation about mental health and to end the stigma attached to it.
The founders of the program, Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci, have both been affected by the suicide of a teammate. Ricci, a former gymnastic, and Braaten, a soccer player, met for coffee in 2017 and created the idea four hours later. Current Vice President Lexi Reed wrote in an email, “Last year DWI expanded to become the official mental health awareness campaign for the entire university and just a few weeks ago on November 14th, it officially became Dam Worth It Co – a non-profit organisation!”
Though it now focuses on the mental health of all OSU students, previously it had shone a spotlight on athletes. The struggles of athletes with mental health issues reflect and amplify many common feelings regarding the subject. However, they differ slightly because athletes are looked to as pillars of strength, both physically and emotionally.
Caleb Etter, a current member of the organization wrote, “Most people and athletes feel like they have some expectation to be mentally tough, as well as physically strong. This stigma that athletes need to be mentally strong all the time is what we’re trying to break. This makes it harder for athletes to step down and ask or seek for help if they’re struggling.”
Reed said that she was worried to ask for help.
“When I was struggling, I felt like I wanted to hide it so that no one knew. I was hesitant to ask for help or talk to anyone for fear of being vulnerable and appearing ‘weak.’” Reed said. “I think the biggest challenge with mental health in athletics is overcoming that stigma that asking for help or talking about your feelings equates to weakness.”
Most athletes need some level of obsession with their sport in order to succeed. Unfortunately, that obsession can often come to be an athlete’s identity as well as a means of ignoring any problems in life. It’s “easy to escape into the sport” without dealing with past trauma or issues, Munn said. He explained that people feel they need to live up to their superhero and feel unable to “remove the mask.”
“The pressure of performing goes deeper than how people see you,” Munn said. With many athletes coming from lower income families, they feel like their sport is the way they can make it out.
Gender and Mental Health in Athletics
Gender compounds the situation.
“I definitely think that society is more accepting of females talking about their feelings and struggles than males.There are gender stereotypes that females are supposed [to be] more emotional and fragile while males are supposed to be ‘tough” and emotionless,’” Reed said. “These stereotypes are dangerous and damaging. Regardless of gender, we all equally deserve to talk about our feelings and be open about our struggles without fear of being judged by anyone.”
Munn said that the part of this that effects men is due to the idea of masculinity, and the “idea that men have to have it all together and that nothing can shake your image.”
“You have to be allowed to crack,” he said.
“I feel as if men have the harder end of the stick when it comes to mental health stigmas. As a society, men feel like they have to be the tough, mentally strong person of the house, relationship, family, whatever it may be,” Etter said.
Reed said that a member of DWI’s marketing team is currently making a video about masculinity and mental health.
Dam Worth Continues Growth
OSU itself has provided support for its student athletes, according to Reed.
“During my time as a student-athlete, I genuinely felt like there were SO many people who wanted to help me in so many different aspects – athletically, academically, nutrition-wise, compliance-wise, and of course, with mental health – the establishment of Dam Worth It definitely helped in that regard,” Reed said. However, she added that she believes there is always more to do.
Munn said that now the locker rooms are a different place, one where people can share what they are dealing with. And now that Dam Worth It encompasses the entire campus, it will be exciting to see how that grows and shapes the community there as well.
Munn is currently more involved in the non-profit company side of the organization, and said that the hopes are to expand further even than the university. He dreams of starting programs in high schools or middle schools where people’s identity begins to form.
Written by: Hannah Ramsey
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