By: Luke Faulks, Staff Writer
After gymnast Simone Biles bowed out from the vault and uneven bars during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, comments poured in supporting the star’s decision to put her mental well-being first. During any given competition, athletes are subjected to enormous pressures — from having to perform in front of crowds of screaming fans, to representing their team and making good on their own expectations. Add on to those pressures the strange and unpredictable rigors of a two-year pandemic, and you end up with growing and often unaddressed mental health struggles for athletes.
In October of 2019, SFU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) began running a series of mental health campaigns, starting with the “find your why” campaign. Developed with Health and Counselling, the campaign was aimed at sharing what helps SFU athletes keep moving forward. In 2021, an expanded campaign focused on resilience in mental health. SAAC “held group Zoom discussions, developed supports such as journal writing, meditation, and podcasts.” It also funded its own workshop centred around addressing issues impacting the mental health of Black and Indigenous students. It’s a program that’s now been recognized and nominated for an award by the NCAA.
While there’s no official measure of the extent to which student-athletes were affected by the campaign, SAAC president and golf team Captain Ryan Stolys says the feedback they’ve received has been positive. Stolys said SAAC is “confident we were able to reach a significant portion and believe our efforts resulted in a positive impact on many based on the feedback we received.”
Former SAAC member, Marina Cummiskey, says working to provide mental health services yielded personal benefits. She said the campaign required her to “not only reflect on my own mental state through researching and compiling various resources, but reciprocally gave me the sense of connection and community I was hoping to provide my peers.” Cummiskey added her involvement helped reinforce her interest in pursuing athletes’ mental health in her graduate career.
On January 22, the NCAA will be announcing its pick for the Division II Award of Excellence which recognizes “community engagement and student-athlete leadership.” SFU will be competing alongside 26 other schools for a $2,500 first-place prize “intended to be used for future SAAC initiatives or community engagement events.”
“Mental health is not something that can simply be ignored,” said Stolys. Looking ahead, the success of the program has inspired the SAAC to continue work to better student-athletes mental health, with a focus on burnout. Chilton says to expect a “Mental Health March,” adding the “goal is to give student-athletes the tools to recognize burnout, and some actionable tips to help prevent it.”