Mentally Tough: A group of Oregon athletes is trying to normalize mental health conversations in athletics through their campaign, “Duck The Stigma.”
Apple. Elbow. Carpet. Bubble. Room. Saddle.
Jenna Lilley will never forget those words.
After being hit in the face by a rise-ball pitch while at bat, Lilley found herself in a training room at Jane Sanders Stadium going through a concussion protocol test. Her face was beginning to swell and bruise as she tried hard to memorize the words the medical personnel tested her memory with.
Lilley will always remember that moment two years ago during her sophomore season and how it marked a turning point in her battle with mental health.
During the healing process, Lilley was able to step back and re-evaluate her mental well-being. She realized all of the constant pressures of being a collegiate-athlete — having to balance daily workouts and games with a demanding school load and a personal life — had been building up for months. All the negative thoughts had escalated into severe anxiety and depression.
“As bad as it sounds, it almost took me out of reality,” she said. “I think the worst point was that I questioned how much I wanted to be alive.
Lilley was an Oregon softball infielder for the past four seasons. She is a Third Team All-American and a First Team All-Pac-12. She played on the U.S. Women’s National Team and was the No. 22 overall pick in the 2018 National Pro Fastpitch draft, going to her hometown team, the Cleveland Comets.
She is an example of the one-in-five teens and young adults the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates lives with a mental health condition.
“Being a high-level athlete, you think you are immune to anxiety or depression,” Lilley said. “You don’t ever see yourself as that because you think of those things as being mentally weak. When in fact, they can happen to anybody.”
Annual reports from Penn State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health have shown an increase in mental health incidents and treatment in college students since 2015. And according to 2016 NCAA reports, nearly one-quarter of student-athletes struggle with the mental demands of their sport.
On April 11 at an Oregon Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) mental health panel, Lilley and four other student-athletes shared their battles with mental health in front of 70 Oregon student-athletes.
The SAAC mental health panel was the first of its kind for the university. It sparked the latest efforts in athlete mental health awareness through the athletic department’s resources and a student-athlete-run campaign, “Duck The Stigma.”
The stigma and the student-athletes who are breaking it
Think of your favorite athlete.
Whether collegiate, professional or even amateur, you probably think of an athlete who is dominant. Someone who shows resistance, power, strength and toughness. Lebron James, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey are just a few.
Now think of how much of that person you don’t know, what you don’t see of their personal lives.
“People had no idea I’m struggling, and I don’t want to be alive,” Lilley said. “Fans wouldn’t know that. They would have no idea. There is so much more to it than just what you do on the field.”
This is the stigma seven Oregon athletes, Caitlyn Wong (women’s soccer), Julia Taylor (women’s lacrosse), Maggie Scott (volleyball), Shweta Sangwan (women’s tennis), Mar’Shay Moore (former women’s basketball), Mick Stanovsek (track and field) and Lilley, are attempting to break in their campaign to normalize mental health conversations.
“There is a culture in all athletics, especially in athletics that excel like Oregon athletics do, that you have to be mentally callous all the time,” Stanovsek said. “The reality is that we are all human beings and there is a massive amount of pressure that goes along with you watching us and the pressure that we put on ourselves, and the pressure the program might put on us.”
Last fall, Wong, Taylor and former track and field middle distance runner Megan Patrignelli (class of 2014) volunteered to share experiences of dealing with mental health struggles on a panel in front of Oregon coaches.
The panel received such great feedback they did it again in the spring in front of student-athletes. Lilley and Stanovsek joined the panelists with the absence of Patrignelli. The athletes stressed the importance of not allowing the stigma around mental health to prevent someone from opening up to friends, teammates or even seeking professional help.
“When every one of us talked, the reaction was, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know you were going through that. I didn’t know that he was experiencing this, or she was experiencing that,’” Wong said.
During this time, the Division I National SAAC invited all SAACs to participate in a video contest to promote mental health awareness and show how schools were breaking the stigma.
Scott, Sangwan and Moore joined the panelists and together they submitted a video to the contest, getting inspiration from Oregon State’s “Dam Worth It” campaign launched earlier this year. The video launched the idea of “Duck The Stigma,” showing the realistic side of these athletes through the mental health struggles they’ve faced.
It was through their research working on the video, along with Lilley’s honors sociology thesis, they discovered that in 2017, 10 percent of Oregon student-athletes suffered from a physical injury, while 24 percent were diagnosed and/or treated for mental health.
Even though Oregon did not win the contest, the athletes plan on releasing additional awareness videos.
“Duck The Stigma, to me, means that it is OK to not be OK, and you can always go to someone else for help because everyone is going through struggles and people are more alike than you think,” Taylor said.
The resources for help
On January 16, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide.
A few weeks after Hilinksi’s death, a video resurfaced on Twitter about former Oregon football linebacker Derrick Malone Jr.’s battle with mental health.
Malone partnered with the athletic department in 2017 to create a video about his experience dealing with depression while at Oregon. The video, Breaking Through Depression-Derrick Malone Story, has over 3,500 views on YouTube and was Oregon’s first outward conversation on the topic.
“I really don’t like how someone’s passing had to be the catalyst of my video resurfacing, because there are always signs everywhere and I think that we always pay attention, but all in all I’m happy that the conversation is getting more serious,” Malone said.
In the video, Malone (class of 2014) stressed the importance of finding someone to talk to, whether friend, family, teammate or medical expert, when dealing with mental health struggles.
“I know that people dealing with anxiety or depression, they just want to be alone and be away from people, and that’s actually probably the worst thing you can possibly do,” Malone said. “There are people, whether you acknowledge it or not, that truly care about you, that would go lengths to make sure that you are OK.”
Oregon student-athletes have access to both the university’s health center and Duck Nest, a wellness center located in the EMU that’s free to students, and two local Oregon-contracted practitioners.
At the beginning of every year, athletic department counselors David Mikula and Michelle Brown introduce themselves to each Oregon athletic team. In addition to working at the Jaqua Center or the Hatfield-Dowlin Center, each has a personal practice outside of the University.
“I think we have been much more attentive to raising consciousness [about mental health] across the athletic department and also across the student-athlete population,” Mikula said.
Another resource for athletes is Oregon’s 11 athletic trainers.
Trainers, like Heather Halseth, spend every day seeing athletes, working with them through rehabilitation and injury-preventative practices. They get to know the athletes on a personal level and are often the first people athletes choose to confide in.
Halseth says the Oregon athletic staff wants to treat mental health like it treats injuries.
“If you get injured, what do you do?” Halseth said. “You come to your athletic trainer and you get evaluated and treated, rehabilitated and you get back out there. … If something is not right, if you don’t feel good, emotionally, mentally, let’s utilize the resources that we have and get you into that system.”
Being mentally strong
In her freshman season, Lilley was a second team All-American, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a finalist for the NFCA Freshman of the Year.
But Lilley’s sophomore season was different. Her batting average plummeted along with her scored run count from the previous season. She became anxious and depressed, comparing herself to her performance the season prior. Falling into a downward spiral, she lost her self-confidence.
“When my mom was up here sophomore year, she came up and told me, ‘Jenna, this certain fan just loves you so much. She thinks you are just the greatest thing,’” Lilley said. “And I thought, to myself, ‘I don’t even feel that way about myself. So, why do these people feel that way?’”
It took the pitch to the face, causing eight fractures in her maxillary sinus bone, a complete broken nose, chipped teeth and sitting out five games to expose Lilley to just how bad her internal battle had become.
Lilley found peace through therapy and being open with her teammates and coach. She learned to confront negative thoughts, understanding they aren’t reality.
“I think she can help with those experiences and help other athletes,” Oregon softball head coach Mike White said. “… I think that she has handled it as well as anybody, and she’s a stronger person now and that’s what you want to see as a coach.”
Lilley hopes with more open conversations mental health will become normalized.
“I think it is just a constant process,” Lilley said. “Accepting yourself for who you are. I call them quirks that you might come with. They make you who you are and your struggles who you are too — just remembering that.”
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