By Xander Swain, Top sports reporter
With the ongoing pandemic, and an increase in isolation, mental health has become an increasingly important issue for many.
The issues and stigmas of mental health are widespread, but one of the communities that may go unnoticed in their battles against mental health are student-athletes.
Student-athletes face increasingly busy schedules of practices, workouts and competition, on top of the pressures of maintaining social relationships and their academics.
The Student-Athlete Mental Health Committee was created in the 2020 fall semester, by Linda Silva and Sydney Smith.
Silva, a member of the women’s lacrosse team, is a campus captain of The Hidden Opponent, which “focuses on student athlete mental health awareness and the destigmatization of mental health.”
Smith, a member of the volleyball team, is a student worker at the UM counseling services.
The two women helped create the SAMHC and have continued to collaborate in their mission to destigmatize mental health issues among student-athletes and the athletic community.
Working with the Montevallo Athletic Director, Mark Richard, the SAMHC is student-led and aims to, “create a safe space for student athletes to speak openly about mental health [and] advocate for mental health awareness.”
Their goal is to have at least one representative for each sport at Montevallo.
Currently they have representatives from women’s and men’s lacrosse, volleyball, women’s and men’s tennis, women’s and men’s basketball, women’s and men’s soccer, softball, and swim. Representatives from each team “are encouraged to reach out to their [teammates] via group message, during practice, or a designated time to talk…”
Silva and Smith plan on organizing more direct action and awareness through events and fundraisers for mental health organizations, student-led panels, speakers and information sessions.
“The Hidden Opponent is a big inspiration to our committee, and we are hoping to have professionals come speak on campus,” said Smith and Silva.
The SAMHC also plans to use money from fundraisers to “donate to local research institutions that focus on and advocate for mental health.”
Smith and Silva said, “Unfortunately, there are not many resources within our community and that’s something we want to work towards.”
The basis of the organization is consistent virtual meetings where the SAMHC “connects students to our local and on-campus resources while providing a safe space for conversation within our group.”
Each meeting, representatives touch base about “current feelings and struggles.”
Representatives are also responsible for reaching out to their teams to discuss individual concerns. Concerns are then brought to the SAMHC meetings where they, “address and educate ourselves on those needs.”
The SAMHC also “encourages representatives to have an open conversation about what our goals are with other student-athletes and to emphasize destigmatization and a welcoming environment.”
“The largest stigmas we are fighting are that student-athletes have to be ‘tough’ in all aspects of our lives and that we have it easier because of scholarships, structured schedules, [and our] health and fitness,” said Silva and Smith.
One of the student representatives of the Montevallo men’s Lacrosse team, Jackson Neufeld, said, “…athletics can often act as an extreme stressor on both an athlete’s body and mind. Research shows that student-athletes are more likely to deal with mental health issues such as eating disorders or substance abuse, as well as depression and anxiety.”
Neufeld, a junior social work major, said that he first joined the SAMHC because, “The committee gives me a chance to continue educating myself, to emerge as a leader on my team, and to help combat the stigma surrounding mental health in the athletic community.”
In the little time the SAMHC has existed on campus, it has been consistently growing.
Neufeld said, “…each meeting the committee has been able to attract more members, and I find it really powerful to see…student-athletes who are advocating for their mental health and [are] passionate about fighting the stigma surrounding mental health in athletic culture.”
For student-athletes like Neufeld, Silva and Smith, the SAHMC provides an important space to navigate the unique challenges of being a collegiate athlete in a new welcoming community.
Neufeld said, “Joining the SAMHC has afforded me the opportunity to not only continue educating myself on these issues, but to establish myself as a leader and a resource for other athletes who also silently struggle.”