An MRI taken after the drug test revealed Vassell had been correct. Her coach gave her the option of staying at UNC and medically retiring or going to another school to continue playing soccer. For a student-athlete who came to college not only to play sports, but to earn a quality degree, the situation devastated Vassell’s mental health.
“To have him tell me that he didn’t want me really, really contributed to my depression,” Vassell said.
Student-athletes face tremendous pressures to balance both sports and academics. The toll those pressures can take on their mental health comes in many forms. For Vassell, losing the ability to play UNC soccer left her searching for a sense of purpose and belonging. The feeling still lingers today.
“The overarching thing that I’m noticing with myself and my healing process is the fact that I don’t feel like I have a thing,” Vassell said. “All my friends who aren’t athletes have a thing, and all of my friends who are athletes obviously have a thing with their sport. For me, I had to go out and find my own things, which is usually what everyone does when they first come to school.”
Many student-athletes have faced similar mental health struggles as a result of injury. Maggie Berra was set to enter UNC in 2014 as part of the women’s rowing team when a car accident just weeks before her first semester required hip surgery, making her miss her first season. After competing again her sophomore year, the injury came back, ending Berra’s rowing career for good.
Berra said she had faced anxiety and chronic depression her whole life. After the injury, she struggled watching her fellow teammates compete and get closer with each other from the sidelines. With physical therapy requirements, a longing to be with the team whenever possible and depression always lingering, Berra’s grades suffered.
“Oh, I did so terrible my first semester freshman year, it was awful,” Berra said. “Still to this day, second semester senior year, I am digging myself out of a GPA hole.”
When a teammate told Berra to meet with Jeni Shannon, director of the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Psychology program, she discovered a whole new way to confront her personal struggles with mental health.
“There aren’t really words to describe how helpful she was,” Berra said. “I was so anxiety-ridden my junior year with life changing and looking for an internship and grades starting to matter, and she really helped all-around. I think if I’d had someone like Dr. Shannon around my freshman year, my experience at UNC would have been a totally different one.”
Shannon works with student-athletes at the University to help them cope with mental health and performance-related issues. She hopes for the program to become more embedded in the athletics department and said they are taking steps to increase awareness among student-athletes, such as a planned two-part forum educating UNC athletes on the treatment of and culture behind mental health.
Shannon said the culture of sports plays a part in some athletes’ reluctance to seek help.
“Athletes are trained to be tough, to keep going, to ‘suck it up,’” Shannon said. “All of those things can create a culture that makes it very hard to ask for help in any way or show anything that could be perceived as weakness.”