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UNC athletes raise mental health awareness, discuss struggles

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Dr. Jeni Shannon, director of the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Psychology Program (AMP), poses for a portrait in her office in the McCaskill Soccer Center on Monday, June 20, 2022. Shannon, in collaboration with The Hidden Opponent, helped organize a student-led panel on mental health in athletics.

“When the trainer can see you’re injured, they make you sit out because they can see your physical health is at stake, but when no one can see your mental health, it’s just up to you to decide,” Victoria Garrick said in her now-famous TedTalk.

Garrick spoke on the mental health of athletes at the University of Southern California in 2017 during her time as a D1 volleyball player and has since turned her mission into a movement by founding The Hidden Opponent, a non-profit advocacy group.

The mental health discussion has grown to include athletes, particularly over the last five years and following the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates like Garrick are raising awareness about athletes' struggles with things like anxiety, depression and isolation.

Lauren Walsh, a junior on the UNC rowing team from Ambler, Pa., moved to UNC during the height of the pandemic to begin her college career. As an out-of-state student athlete, Walsh said she faced struggles similar to many first-years, while also dealing with her rigorous athletic schedule.   

Walsh said that she, like many other athletes, often convinced herself that she was the only one feeling depressed or anxious. Since then, Walsh has become an advocate for athletes struggling with their mental health and says she wants to be a resource for others.

Before her junior year, Walsh applied to be a campus captain for The Hidden Opponent and was selected to lead alongside her senior teammate Kate Burgess and junior volleyball player Mabrey Shaffmaster.  

“When I came to college my first year I struggled severely with mental health. Especially with COVID and isolation and everything, so that inspired me to get involved with Hidden Opponent,” Walsh said.

This school year, the organization has made big strides for mental health in UNC athletics. In April, The Hidden Opponent hosted Garrick on campus in a student-led panel. Director of the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Psychology Program Dr. Jeni Shannon also helped organize the event.

The panel featured junior running back Elijah Green and senior field hockey player Madison Orobono.

Orobono said she became interested in mental health advocacy after a friend posted about an organization called Morgan’s Message. The organization was founded by Morgan Rodgers’ family with the goal of destigmatizing mental health in athletes after their daughter, a Duke lacrosse player, took her life in 2019. 

Orobono became an ambassador for Morgan’s Message with the goal of creating open conversations about mental health on UNC’s campus. 

Through her work with the organization, she has hosted campus meetings where athletes are able to gather and talk about their struggles with mental health in daily life.

“We had Bubba Cunningham to sit in on one of the meetings to help the athletic department understand that ‘Hey, this is actually a serious issue that you are kind of turning a blind eye to,’” Orobono said. 

Shaffmaster said that she believes in the importance of meetings like these and talking about your mental health with others. 

“It’s the best thing you can do because letting it just weigh on yourself is a lot,” she said.

Shaffmaster and Orobono helped organize mental health awareness dedication games for their respective teams this past season. This tradition started in the fall of 2021, with the women’s soccer team dedicating a game following a campus-wide mental health crisis.

Aside from these impactful student-led campus resources and awareness programs, UNC Athletics has three full-time campus psychologists, including Dr. Shannon.

Orobono said she believes every team should have meetings with the sports psychology staff. 

“I know not every team does it on our campus and it’s hard to because we are still understaffed, but we’re slowly getting there,” she said. 

Walsh said that she has seen lots of improvement among her teammates and their willingness to come forward and talk about their mental health. 

“I think, as a University, we’re moving in the correct direction. It’s just how we can take larger steps. And then, also, as a student body, how we can recognize the toll of mental health,” she said. 

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In her own community, Walsh said she has tried to make an impact on her teammates’ lives by always being the person they feel comfortable coming to about anything.

“I wanted to be the person I internally thought I didn’t have,” she said. 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com