Tech student-athletes tackling mental health issues they face


Perhaps a great indication of the changing perception of mental health issues occurred this spring on the Virginia Tech campus when a group of Tech student-athletes approached staff members in the Office of Student-Athlete Development.
Wanting to have a dialogue about mental health with other Tech student-athletes in a group-like setting, this small cluster asked Natalie Forbes, Senior Director of Student-Athlete Personal Development, how to go about effecting the discussions they sought. Forbes was excited at the group’s proactive nature and their courage and their willingness to tackle a sensitive topic.
These initial conversations led to the formation of “THRIVE,” a program with the express goal of making it possible for student-athletes not just to survive, but also to thrive, regardless of where they resided on the mental health spectrum.
The foundation of the program is the student-athletes. Forbes followed up by meeting with Lauren Naldo, a Counseling and Athletic Mental Performance staff counselor within the Virginia Tech Athletics Department. They helped form a focus group of 10 student-athletes and met with them to get feedback about the topics to be discussed and how event should be structured.
They then decided to create a THRIVE ambassadors group with one student-athlete from each of the Hokies’ 22 varsity sports. With occasional guidance from Forbes and Naldo, this group planned THRIVE programming and selected topics, dates, giveaways, food and promotion of the events.
“Lauren and I felt it was vital to have the THRIVE ambassadors play a major role in the planning,” Forbes said. “They can provide input and feedback not only on mental health topics that are most affecting their peers, but also can provide the best messaging and how to approach the event in a way that the student-athletes would respond to.”
The group has held two workshops this fall, both for freshman student-athletes. The rationale for focusing on freshmen first was that the transition from high school to college is often hard, and sometimes overwhelming, for freshmen student-athletes as they attempt to balance the demands of academics and athletics..
The first THRIVE workshop took place Oct. 14, and was for female freshman student-athletes, hosted by the female THRIVE ambassadors. The group heard from senior women’s swimmer Hannah Wilding and former women’s swimmer MJ Ulrich, both of whom have been public about their mental health struggles, especially as regards trying to be perfect academically and athletically.
The ambassadors encouraged discussions in small groups by relating their own struggles and how they coped. Activities encouraged student-athletes to share their challenges, and the event ended with a “victory” lap in which each person shared a victory, or win, she has achieved. The group then celebrated each person’s victory with her. Each attendee received an aromatherapy candle, which allowed the workshop to end on a positive note.
“As a student-athlete myself, I have struggled on many occasions,” said Kanajzae Brown, a senior track and field student-athlete who serves as a THRIVE ambassador. “Being a part of the planning was an amazing experience and seeing it all come together was very rewarding. The mental health of student-athletes is an important aspect of campus life that can sometimes be overlooked and unaddressed. I’m so grateful for the student-athlete development team for understanding and valuing the importance of mental health in athletes and creating an open platform for it to be addressed.”
“I really enjoyed talking and listening to older girls who have gone through the same experiences of working to balance school and their sport during the busy transition into college,” Tech women’s tennis freshman Sophia Mitchell said. “Opening up about mental health is so important, and THRIVE is a great resource for student-athletes to connect to and support each other.”
The second THRIVE workshop took place Oct. 21, this time for male freshman student-athletes hosted by the male THRIVE ambassadors This event had a somewhat different format. The event consisted of a short video about NBA star Kevin Love’s struggle with mental health and how teammate Channing Frye helped him. A panel discussion followed with Dr. Gary Bennett (Tech’s associate athletics director for sports psychology), Ty Walz (a former Tech wrestler and current director of performance for the wrestling program), current football redshirt junior Austin Canno, and current track and field senior standout Jaelyn Demory.
The panel addressed various issues that included meeting expectations when one is physically and mentally run down, remembering one’s “why,” strategizing to help with the transition to college and finding one’s place on the team. Panel members fielded questions, drawing from their own mental health journeys and experiences as student-athletes.
Just like with the women’s event, the men’s workshop ended with a victory lap. This time, each attendee received a stress ball.
“I attended THRIVE to see if there were any other athletes going through what I am,” Tech football freshman Jaden Payoute said. “After the event, I realized I wasn’t alone in the process of adjusting to the student-athlete life.”
“I wanted to be a part of THRIVE because I felt I could use my experience to impact and benefit younger student-athletes,” said Tech senior swimmer Aaron Boyd, who serves as an ambassador. “I feel that it is important because all student-athletes experience similar issues throughout college, and THRIVE provides a safe place to recognize and express these issues with other athletes in a healthy manner.”
In all, 65 freshmen participated in the two workshops. More importantly, these student-athletes broke down barriers, opening the doors for future discussions on difficult and even somewhat sensitive topics.
And there will be more discussions. THRIVE ambassadors plan to hold two more events during the spring semester – again, one for male student-athletes and one for females. This time, they want those events to be open to all student-athletes.
The ambassadors are in discussions with Forbes and Naldo to determine the topics, the formats and the promotion of the workshops.
“THRIVE opened up doors for relationships to be built and to give us all an outlet to talk about our struggles. It also provided solutions on how to deal with them,” Brown said. “College athletics is such a rewarding journey because playing a college sport allows you to dig deep and find yourself on a different level. I’m so glad we learned the importance of not just surviving but thriving.”

–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics