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'It's OK to ask for assistance': How UNC's elite athletes use mental health as an edge


Photos courtesy of Olivia Paul, Nick Pacini, and Andrew Lam. 

This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

Kiersten Thomassey, positioned mere feet from a cardboard box filled to the brim with commemorative national championship hats, can still recall the moment the UNC field hockey team's season shifted. 

UNC senior midfielder Kiersten Thomassey (35) celebrates after her goal with her teammates during the first-round game of the NCAA field hockey championship against William & Mary at the Karen Shelton Stadium on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. The Tar Heels won 6-1.

We were rolling,” the senior midfielder said, reflecting on the team’s October game against Virginia. “We were playing so well — absolutely killing it.”

Thanks to its simple play and clean passing, North Carolina had built a 2-0 lead at halftime. Thomassey still isn’t sure what happened — maybe they felt too comfortable or were nervous to lose the lead — but UNC began to play on its heels. UVA came out ready in the second half. The Tar Heels were completely rattled and dropped the game 3-2.

That was the game where we were like, ‘Our season cannot keep going on like this,’" Thomassey said.

Enter Dr. Jeni Shannon. Shannon, director of the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Psychology Program, works with teams like the field hockey program weekly in sports psychology meetings. Whether it’s performance anxiety or body image, Shannon is there to help. And for elite athletes like Thomassey, taking control of the mental aspect of the game has become an increasingly important step toward success on the field.


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.

In the case of UNC field hockey, the team identified momentum as an issue following the loss to the Cavaliers. Shannon came in with a plan, and in their next team session the Tar Heels talked about what to do when they recognized that things were slowing down mid-game. Thomassey said the Tar Heels were a completely new team after that session.

Even through the national championship game, we were able to recognize those moments and just say, ‘We’re not gonna let this happen to us,’” Thomassey said. “We took it and ran with it, and we obviously won so it worked out.”

'A bit of a speed bump'

His nickname might be “the Butcher," but UNC football senior defensive lineman Kaimon Rucker would argue that’s only one side of his personality. The Butcher is an alter ego, if you will. When Rucker’s on the field, he’s as aggressive as a rolling ball of butcher knives.

But off the field, Rucker is one of the most prominent advocates for mental health on the UNC campus, for both athletes and non-athletes. 

UNC senior jack Kaimon Rucker (25) gets ready for the play during the football game against Minnesota on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Kenan Stadium.

“For him, as a football player — historically a sports culture that has not been as receptive to mental health — to have him be a representative and an advocate has made more of a difference on that team and on our athletic department than any talk myself or my staff can give," Shannon said. 

Rucker spoke last year at a UNC Athletics event about mental health, sharing his story with his fellow athletes. Still, he admits he has his struggles from time to time.

The senior recalls a practice ahead of the North Carolina football team’s game against Clemson in November where his mental health hit a bit of a speed bump. 

“I just remember I got a rep, I won and I showed no emotion,” he said.

Gene Chizik, the former defensive coordinator at UNC, asked Rucker, “Hey, are you good?” He told Rucker, “You can trust me. You can tell me what’s going on.”

Rucker brushed it off. He identified as an independent person. Now, he can admit he simply didn’t want to tell Chizik the truth of what was really going on.

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So, he simply said, “I’m fine.” 

He wasn’t. Soon, he felt a bottle of emotion. For some reason, he kept getting worked up. Still, Rucker pushed through practice.

Next thing you know, [my] emotions overwhelm me," he said. "I started getting really anxious. I was like ‘I can’t do it. I can’t go through practice right now.’”

Rucker told Chizik he had to go, exited practice and made a beeline to the training room, where he broke down. Lots of factors were at play: school, a recent death in the family and the constant pressure Rucker puts on himself to perform at a high level on the field. 

Since that practice, Rucker has shifted his mindset around his mental health. 

When things get too tough, it’s OK to ask for assistance,” Rucker said. “It’s OK to depend on the help of your teammates, your friends, your family, your coaches. Once I realized that, it has relieved me from a lot of mental stress and anxiety.”

'Room to grow'

While Rucker, Thomassey and many other UNC athletes have taken advantage of the resources Shannon’s department offers, there’s arguably room to grow. 

Thomassey is a member of North Carolina’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council, which meets about once a month to organize and advocate for the voices of UNC athletes. She said the SAAC has honed in on the topic of mental health.

On Feb. 5, Thomassey and former UNC runner Sully Shelton attended a Faculty Athletics Committee meeting on behalf of the SAAC. They spoke about the need for additional mental health resources for athletes given their busy schedules. 

“I am completely on the wave of getting more licensed therapists and anyone else that could help into student athletics,” Shelton said at the FAC meeting. “I think that’s a long way to go. I just wanted to voice my concern for that.”

UNC athletics currently has three licensed mental health clinicians on staff, but Shannon agrees that her program can always benefit from more providers.

Shannon said her department does not currently have enough latitude to meet all of UNC athletes’ needs without a wait, and she doesn’t have a clear timeline on when they will be able to hire more professionals. 

Still, Shannon pointed to her department’s hiring of a case manager a few weeks ago, Shaquilla Jones, who she hopes will help bridge the gap. She said Jones' duties include helping to manage the department’s response times, waitlist and walk-in availabilities as well as referring athletes to community resources when her program is at capacity. 

While I think there’s always room to grow and be better, the amount of progress we’ve made, both in terms of resources and conversation and reducing stigma in this period of time, it’s just incredible,” Shannon said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do and really appreciate the push from the student athletes because this is really where it came from.”


@dthsports | 

Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.