On Thursday, September 29th at 8:00pm, This Is My Brave, a national non-profit organization dedicated to mental health storytelling, hosted a virtual sharing event titled, “Stories from the College Athlete Experience.” The event was managed by Erin Gallagher, the Executive Director of This Is My Brave, attended by Dr. Sam Maniar, a Sports Psychologist for the Center of Peak Performance, LLC, and moderated by Layne Ingram, a former college athlete who now works as Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.
One of the seven student athletes featured from across the country in the night’s event was Tony Diallo, a student athlete at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on UMBC’s Division I Men’s Lacrosse Team. Diallo is a Senior Biology major and Africana Studies minor and involved around campus, notably as the President of the Black Student Athlete Alliance.
Before sharing his story at the event, Diallo reflected on his journey with college lacrosse and mental health. Born in Virginia and growing up in a Maryland private school setting with his sport, Diallo experienced a great deal of anxiety.
He described, “It was a problem for me in high school, I had anxiety problems and I didn’t know how to process things. Instead of talking about it or getting the help I needed, I just pushed it down. I thought it wasn’t what I was supposed to feel, or what was ‘normal’ and it got to a point where it wasn’t healthy.”
He did not think about his mental health more deeply until coming to UMBC during the COVID-19 year.
Before, he found it hard to talk about; he said, “I felt like I was the only one. I felt like my teammates weren’t going through things like that so I kept it to myself.”
Since coming to college, Diallo has expanded his understanding of mental health and sought out support, on and off the field. He described, “I’ve gotten better at listening to my body when I am tired or need food and water. I’ve gotten better at understanding my body and limits.”
Being a college athlete is like “a job,” Diallo said. “We have to be in the locker room by 7:00am, so you’re up at 6:30am and you have to have all your stuff together. Then, you have class after and labs. Your days can end at 1:00am or 2:00am, and you’re going from Monday to Friday. It’s definitely taxing on the body.”
“The battle was finding confidence,” Diallo said, “it was a slow process. It wasn’t easy at first and I’m not perfect now, but I’m in therapy, getting help. I’m more open to talking about things and that feels good.”
He especially values his opportunities to speak on mental health, within and outside of this event, for those who are less represented in these conversations. Diallo said, “There aren’t a lot of Black men out there, especially athletes, talking about mental health,” and that is his “main reason for doing this show.”
Diallo thanked his high school coach and support system for helping him make it to UMBC, and Erin Gallagher of This Is My Brave, for inspiring him to take on a sharing role at Thursday’s event. He remarked, “Ms. Gallagher worked hard for [the show] and to get where she is today. If it wasn’t for her passion and drive to put this information out there, I probably wouldn’t have taken it as seriously as I do now.”
Diallo does not intend to be the sole voice of UMBC’s student athlete community in these mental health conversations, but he said, “if people on campus can see my story and get the resources that they need, that’s great. We’re not gonna agree on everything but we’re all trying to get somewhere so let’s just respect, love and help each other out.”
From here, Diallo would love to keep speaking up but he “also wants to give someone else an opportunity to share.” For now, Diallo is “continuing to work on [himself].” As a senior, he’s starting to prepare for what comes next, which he hopes is Veterinary school.
Despite the pressures, Diallo enjoys his life as a student athlete if he can work balance into it and keep sharing. What he loves most about his life on the lacrosse team is “when you’re in the locker room and everyone’s sitting there, getting ready, with the same goal in mind.”
These details, and many more, shone through as Diallo spoke at the “Stories from the College Athlete Experience.”
“Stories from the College Athlete Experience” is part of the ongoing effort in recent months by This Is My Brave to bring attention to the growing mental health crisis in the student athlete community and to highlight their mental health stories and journeys towards recovery.
Gallagher spoke on the reason behind this focus, explaining, “We decided to do college athletes because we’ve all seen in the news some well reported and highly reported stories of lives that were lost of college athletes.”
Especially in the Spring of 2022, Gallagher noted a “cluster of losses,” in the student athlete community to suicide that have been devastating.
Tragedies like that of Katie Meyer, a 22-year-old soccer player at Stanford University who died by suicide in her dorm room on March 1, have put pressure on the National Collegiate Athletic Association to address the rising crisis with action.
Gallagher commented on how it is crucial we keep speaking about suicide: “People have a significant fear of talking about suicide, the worry is that if we start talking about suicide that means you may give that idea to someone.” The reality is, she said, “if we say it out loud, then we’re offering those around us relief to talk about it.”
Sharing this information can make all the difference, she noted, “It’s easier to prevent a mental health crisis than to manage one.”
This Is My Brave has been carving out space to normalize conversations about mental health since 2014 when they hosted their first “This Is My Brave Show” in Arlington, Virginia. This Is My Brave promotes the power of art for expression and healing, and their traditional events have featured storytellers communicating through original song and poetry, monologue, stand-up comedy, and dance. These tools were included in Thursday’s event.
In 2014, Gallagher saw that, “there was such a positive response from the community” to their show, that it became clear “it was something that could be replicated in cities across the country on stages everywhere.”
The mother of three children, Gallagher came to be involved with This Is My Brave after losing her eldest son, Jay, six years ago to suicide. Gallagher feels especially invested in the sharing focus of this fall, as her youngest plays Division I Women’s Softball in college.
She talked about Thursday’s event, noting, “We really wanted to provide a platform so that we could start some conversations and hopefully prompt more conversations in athletic departments and communities about how we can help these athletes have an outlet, feel comfortable talking about their mental health, so that some of that pressure can be relieved.”
Dr. Sam Maniar is an expert on mental health in the college athlete community today; currently positioned in his work at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. Maniar attended the event on Thursday to provide support for more clinical questions from the audience during the live question and answer segment of the event.
Since picking up a book on the relationship between the body and mind as a competitive athlete in high school, Maniar was hooked. He reflected, “At the time, in the late 80s and early 90s, it felt like we didn’t pay enough attention to that connection.”
Since then, his life’s work has been dedicated to helping college athletes who struggle to cope with the pressures of their position. Prior to working at the University of Akron, Maniar worked for Washington State University in 2001 and afterwards for Ohio State University.
He explained, “I predominately work with college and professional athletes with the clinical side of mental health as well as with the performance side. An athlete or a team might work with me because they’re struggling from depression or because they’re struggling to perform under pressure for a big game. A lot of the time it’s both. On the field impacts off the field, and off the field impacts on.”
The biggest thing he feels he can offer, besides clinical support, is simply “hope.”
In recent years, Maniar has certainly noticed a change in the climate of mental health, specifically within the student athlete community.
“The stressors of being a collegiate student athlete are higher today than they’ve ever been,” he described, “the most common things that we see are depression and anxiety and sometimes both together.”
The spike, he explained, can be connected to several contributing factors.
While there remain a number mental health benefits to being a student athlete, he noted “the benefits of exercise” and the “benefits to the comradery, having a support network,” there are also intense stressors for these student athletes, especially today.
He described the student athlete community as an “at-risk population.” They are students who are “juggling a full-time academic load, 20 plus hours a week devoted to their sport, some are even working on top of that.” They are also in an age range where he describes, “a lot of mental health problems onset.”
COVID-19, he believes, certainly disrupted the routines of many college athletes who thrive on structure. Self-care went downhill, and he said, “they lost a lot of social connectedness as well as their competitions.”
Maniar also pointed to the general rising intensity of athletic competition today, noting, “the pressures and demands of being a student athlete in 2022 are higher than they’ve ever been. Many college athletes are training like professional athletes trained maybe 10 or 15 years ago. So the expectations have gone up, but I don’t think the coping skills have gone along with the increased demands.”
In addition to these, social media plays a factor in the mental well-being of student athletes today.
He described, “the public has unprecedented access to student athletes through social media today; it’s easy to send a threatening comment through the cloak of a fake account. It’s commonplace, unfortunately, for student athletes to get threats or horrible comments directed at them based on their looks or performance or whatever it might be.”
This can also mean student athletes are highly visible on their campus and might feel more reluctant to seek out mental health help in a counseling center with public waiting spaces. Maniar stated, “We’re not at the point where it’s ok or feels safe for everyone to sit in a waiting room.”
Despite these changes, Maniar is a firm believer that things are moving in a better direction than they were before on college campuses.
He mentioned the number of professional athletes, like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who have come forward with mental health stories and have contributed to the recovery process of many athletes across the world.
With such large stories emerging, he remarked, “Universities have started to realize that we need to provide services within athletic departments. So what used to just be for the Power Five conferences to have, a lot of the have-nots are trying to find ways to make this happen. You’re starting to see it now in D2 and D3 schools, the NCAA has really started to push this.”
The most important thing to Maniar, similar to Gallagher, is that these stories continue to be shared. He concluded, “I can’t wait for when this is not news. I can’t wait for when ‘This Is My Brave,’ becomes ‘This Is My Story.’”
“Stories from the College Athlete Experience” was presented by the Society of Valued Minds, a community using self-expression to live boldly with mental health conditions and an initiative of Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc.
Isabel Taylor is a junior English Literature major and Editor-In-Chief. Contact Isabel at firstname.lastname@example.org