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'Game Changer' dives deep into athletes' mental health concerns
Herald-Journal - 4/18/2019
April 18-- Apr. 18--Aaron Taylor knows a thing a thing or two about winning.
A former Notre Dame All-American football player, Taylor was a first round National Football League draft pick as an offensive lineman in 1994 and he helped the Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl in 1997.
Taylor also knows what it's like to lose.
At VCOM Carolinas' Thursday morning panel on mental health, Taylor shared his own struggles with alcoholism in his post-NFL life, and the fact that he's lost six friends to suicide.
"As somebody that's battled depression and anxiety for most of my life starting at the age I was playing sports, I've got a vested interest in making sure that doesn't happen to me," Taylor, currently a CBS College Football analyst, said. "But also to be a good teammate for those guys still out there."
He said he struggled with a loss of identity and purpose following the end of his playing career in 1999.
But experts said Thursday amateur athletes at all levels feel the same pressures Taylor did.
The panel at VCOM was part of the National Center for Performance Health's "Game Changer," program aimed specifically at helping colleges and universities offer the mental health help NCAA athletes need.
The NCPH said there's a host of stressors student athletes face, including balancing athletics and academics, relationship woes and financial worries, sexual assault, pressure to perform, physical injuries, depression and anxiety.
This can lead to substance abuse problems, and The Centers for Disease Control also reports suicide as the second leading cause of death among college students.
Dr. Rahul Mehra, CEO and Chief Medical Officer of the National Center for Performance Health, grew up in Gaffney before beginning his career in psychiatric medicine.
"We really don't think enough about prevention," Mehra said. "How do we take issues and challenges that children and adolescents and young adults go through to mitigate the long term effects of these things?"
Mehra said statistics indicate that for adults who develop major psychiatric issues in their 20s, 50 percent of the time those patients have started manifesting symptoms. "That number creeps up to about 80 percent by age 24," Mehra said.
Mehra emphasized many of those young adults and athletes don't get the help they need due to perceived stigmas surrounding mental health treatment, a lack of education and awareness and a lack of access to treatment.
While Game Changer focuses on college athletes, he described the program as a platform and catalyst for wider acceptance of preventive mental health treatment for all young people.
Limestone College has adopted Game Changer as a way to support its 800 student athletes, according to Michael Cirino, Limestone College's Athletic Director and Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics, and Adam Ranns, Limestone's Head Athletic Trainer.
Ranns said the program offers it another framework for helping students cope with mental health issues that the college's athletics department didn't necessarily have before.
Technology can also play a role in helping students overcome challenges.
Robyn Hussa Farrell, is the co-creater of Sharpen, an app that provides an easy, judgment-free path -- on a desktop or mobile device -- to connect people with evidence-based tools and resources that can link people up with the mental health help they need.
"So that if I'm a kid from a certain demographic, I log in and I see people like me talking to me about their life struggles, and they can connect to somebody like Dr. Mehra right there within the infrastructure of the technology," Farrell said.
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