Athletes making a difference in student mental health

- January 19, 2017

Dal student-athletes involved in SAMHI. Back row, left to right: Kashrell Lawrence (basketball), Laura Brooks (hockey), Matt Donovan (volleyball); front row, left to right: Amanda Bowles (soccer), Scarlett Smith (soccer), Hannah Gonzales (basketball). (Jordan Zarvie photo)
Dal student-athletes involved in SAMHI. Back row, left to right: Kashrell Lawrence (basketball), Laura Brooks (hockey), Matt Donovan (volleyball); front row, left to right: Amanda Bowles (soccer), Scarlett Smith (soccer), Hannah Gonzales (basketball). (Jordan Zarvie photo)

Whether she’s on the soccer field or volunteering in the community, fourth-year nursing student Scarlett Smith is helping fight the stigma of mental illness amongst student-athletes through her involvement with the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI).

The national non-profit organization currently has 18 campus teams at universities across Canada that help student-athletes access mental health resources, and increase community awareness of mental health concerns amongst university athletes.

“SAMHI promotes and protects the mental health of student-athletes and uses its platform to advocate open dialogue between athletes, their teammates, and their coaches,” says Scarlett. “Being able to start and maintain the conversation around mental health normalizes the idea that athletes suffer from mental illness just like anyone else.”

A walk-on for the Dalhousie women’s soccer team in her first year, Scarlett is no stranger to the demands of being a student-athlete. While juggling the time commitment of a varsity sport, she excels in her coursework and makes time to get involved in the community. For the past four years she has received the Lockward Memorial Scholarship, which recognizes academic merit, leadership, and extracurricular activities for students in the School of Nursing.

This year, she has been recognized as one of 89 U Sports Academic All-Canadian student-athletes from Dalhousie. To qualify, Scarlett had to maintain at least a 3.50 grade point average while playing varsity soccer.

Supporting one another

As a team lead of the Dalhousie chapter of SAMHI, Scarlett’s involvement allows her to combine athletics with community service — and to involve herself in a topic that she feels personally connected to.

Student mental health has been a growing topic of conversation across Canadian universities, and student-athletes are just as likely as other university students to experience mental health concerns. Apart from the pressures of performing well academically while excelling in their sport, student-athletes often face false assumptions that they are immune from mental health concerns. They can also face outdated attitudes that athletes should just “work through the pain” which usually just exacerbates the issue.

That’s why SAMHI follows what it calls the “Huddle Philosophy” which puts the responsibility of a student-athlete’s mental health on a groups related to the individual student — other student-athletes (teammates), coaches and support staff, university representatives, governing bodies in the different university sports, and the families and friends of the student-athletes.

SAMHI campus teams also host their own “Mental Health Match-ups” throughout the year—events that promote mental health awareness and mental illness in sport, connect student-athletes with mental health resources on campus and in the community, and raise funds to support the campus teams. Despite being a new initiative at Dalhousie, Scarlett says she has noticed a difference.

“I think introducing a program specific to athletes’ mental health has helped get the conversation going,” she says. “People are opening up and there’s more of a support network for athletes’ mental health at Dal. I know within my team especially, mental health was never a topic of conversation. I hear a lot more about students who are comfortable talking [about their mental health] and seeking help in the varsity community.”

Opening the conversation

Scarlett now certainly feels more comfortable talking about her own mental health struggles — including sharing her story on “The Huddle” blog on the SAMHI website — and is passionate about doing her part to help break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues among athletes. As a student-athlete, she knows the importance of taking care of yourself mentally as well as physically, and credits the Dalhousie community and her varsity family for helping her navigate through her journey over the past four years.

“When I became a varsity athlete, I was afraid to open up when I was dealing with my own mental health issues,” she says. “I realized that by doing so, I was playing a part in stigmatizing athletes’ mental health. As an athlete I was afraid I would look weak and unable to cope. But I believe that going to a therapy appointment should be the same as going to a physiotherapy appointment. I think if we can get to a point one day where mental health is on the same level as physical health, that would really help an athlete’s performance on and off the field.”

Bell Let’s Talk

This year SAMHI is teaming up with Bell Let’s Talk to keep the conversation going.

On Bell Let’s Talk Day (Wednesday, January 25), the Dalhousie Tigers men’s hockey team will face of against the Saint Mary’s Huskies at 7 p.m. at the Halifax Forum. SAMHI teams from both Dal and Saint Mary’s will be collaborating to support mental health awareness with hands-on activities during the game.

The game is part of a national U-Sports effort to support Bell Let’s Talk Day, with men’s hockey games in three provinces supporting the event.

Watch: Dal Tigers and other AUS student-athletes support Bell Let’s Talk


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