With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the conversation surrounding mental health continues to carry a stigma — even among some of the most high-profile sports programs at Ohio State.
Ohio State’s sport psychology department, which was expanded in August, provides student-athletes with access to consultation and mental wellness training. With support from key athletics figures like Ohio State football coach Ryan Day and men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann, the stigma surrounding mental health continues to be challenged.
“We all have a responsibility to make sure that people understand that part of being healthy is being mentally healthy,” Day said. “I’m proud to say that I think Ohio State is at the forefront of this nationally.”
Day and Holtmann have been outspoken advocates for mental health awareness throughout their tenures at Ohio State; Day is a founder of the Christina and Ryan Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness, and Holtmann has spoken out about mental health in press conferences before. Chelsi Day, a member of Ohio State’s sport psychology staff, said that having a supportive coach makes a huge difference in terms of student-athletes coming forward with mental health issues.
“It’s a total game changer,” Chelsi Day said. “With that coach support, it makes our lives a lot easier as clinicians and I really do think it changes the whole trajectory of these kids’ lives when you have a coach who is so supportive and open.”
Both Ryan Day and Holtmann pointed out that they have both seen a dramatic shift in the conversation surrounding mental health since their own playing days in their respective sports.
“There very much was a stigma about it when I played and early in my coaching career,” Holtmann said. “So many issues that involved mental health, you just kind of grit your teeth and got through it and oftentimes that wasn’t the best approach.”
Holtmann was thrust into a difficult position last season when former Buckeye guard D.J. Carton announced he was leaving the team Jan. 30 for mental health reasons. Two days later, Holtmann defended his player at a press conference where he revealed that he sees a therapist.
Holtmann said his rant on the “antiquated” statements made by fans toward his players on social media came from the changing landscape regarding mental health awareness.
“All of us are really taking a much greater look at how mental health has impacted student-athletes,” Holtmann said. “I’ve had more students come through my office and ask for help in the last five years than in the previous 15 years I was in coaching.”
As Holtmann and his players dealt with social media critics throughout Carton’s absence, both he and Ryan Day agreed that the influence of social media was the heaviest factor weighing on the mental health of student-athletes.
Ryan Day said that the added and constant pressure that his players experience from social media has an increased negative effect on their mental health.
“It totally is a combination of a lot of things, but I would say the social media part is something that our guys cannot get away from,” Ryan Day said. “The constant pressure to uphold their image and status is something that is very hard on them.”
Student-athletes are also taking on the burden of a strict, regimented schedule that includes lifting, practices, team meetings and film sessions on top of their academic obligations. However, Ryan Day said that they need this structure in order to grow their bodies and develop as people.
Ryan Day also said that youth sports have had a negative effect on current players due to the intense pressure placed on the athletes at such a young age.
As the Ohio State football program prides itself on mental toughness, Ryan Day said that there is a clear distinction between the ideas of being mentally tough and being mentally healthy.
“There’s no question you have to be tough to play this game,” Ryan Day said. “But, if your mind is not in a great place then it’s hard to be tough.”