Student, Assistant Trainer launch athletics counseling service focused on mental health validation

Illustration of bandaged brain
Summer Binder / The Mossy Log

Basketball player Gabby Beltran ’23, with the help of Assistant Athletic Trainer Gina Parisi, began pilot phases of the Mental-Health Validation Program (MVP) which is a counseling program geared to student-athletes.

Being an athlete is a central part of many student’s identities here on campus. The long hours of training and hard work being put into team or individual sports performance weigh heavily on athletes, but what goes relatively undiscussed is the mental health of student athletes. 

“Last basketball season I was first facing anxiety and depression due to my sport, and then towards the end of the season I faced an injury that really affected my mental health,” said Beltran. “Throughout that time I had to scrape for resources on campus, and this is when I realized that there are no programs available for athletes who are facing mental health struggles. I never want anyone to feel the way that I did, which is when I decided to start building this program.”

The NCAA conducted a study in 2022 which found that rates of anxiety, depression and mental exhaustion among student athletes are 1.5 to 2 times higher now than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Student athletes were more likely to suffer eating disorders than their peers, and the isolating effects of mental health issues affected 67% of respondents. However, only 45% of respondents felt they had a safety net on their campus where they could seek mental health treatment or support. Many felt their coaches or teammates would not understand. 

At Lewis & Clark, members of the athletic department are looking to bridge that gap. MVP began earlier this year after Beltran approached the LC Athletics training staff to conduct an independent study on student athlete mental health.

“The program MVP was really born out of Gabby and I’s collaboration,” Parisi said. “For her for this independent project and then for me, knowing that I’ll hopefully be here for a long time, wanting to create something that was lasting.” 

What began as an independent project has since grown into a collection of resources for student athletes. The project is developing peer support networks and ambassador program focus on building up the athletic community. Coach “walk and talks” are being implemented to work further to build connections between the athletes and their mentors. Ideas were drawn from Beltran’s own experiences, as well as the results of the study. Observations highlighted the influence of competitiveness and high-pressure teams can be dangerous to the mental well-being of students. 

“As an athlete, there is the stigma that “showing tired” is a sign of weakness…” said Beltran. “This created a negative relationship with mental health because I felt so weak and isolated throughout this time. I would say that isolation within student-athlete mental health is not talked about enough. So many athletes are experiencing very similar struggles, but as mentioned there is the stigma that prevents individuals from talking about it.”

“While sometimes it might be a crisis … or the emotional responses and experiences that come along with injury and also the day in and day out, just… being a person and dealing with feelings and dealing with an inner voice that maybe isn’t so nice,” Parisi said. “ I feel very strongly about … offering empathy and creating spaces where people can explore their inner worlds and what’s going on for them, and have that exploration be supported.”

As part of the study, student athletes were surveyed about their experiences with mental health issues, seeking treatment and what athletics-specific services they wanted to see on campus. Respondents described struggling with negative self talk and disordered eating patterns, for which they requested guest speakers. Struggles with injury and the isolation of recovery were also common.

“While I may not be able to understand fully what it’s like to have a season ending injury or a surgery and come back from that,” Parisi said. “I do understand what it means to lose the sense of identity, to really face hard mental health struggles, and just the dissonance that can put in oneself because it’s not physical. For me, I had to find my own healing journey with it. I learned a lot of tools and skills that I know have improved my mental health, so I really want to help give that back. How can I bring resources into a space that can support these barriers that athletes will face along their journey?”

As the program continues to grow, Beltran and Parisi hope to bring in a dedicated sports psychologist. While a representative of the counseling service here on campus is now available in Pamplin once a week, a sports psychologist is specially trained to address the unique needs of athletes. 

“I think athletes are humans, too,” Parisi said. “(But,) it’s kind of this self reinforcing identity. Just like anyone else in the community or in the world, when we are kind of struggling with our identity, or trying to embody more of who we authentically are, we’re faced with the conditionings of our upbringing, our culture, our environments.”

A webpage for MVP is currently in development, and two guest speakers from the counseling service with athletics backgrounds will be brought in this semester to speak to some of the most common issues faced by students. The organizers/team/pair/idk are planning for an (or planning to officially introduce the program in) official introduction to the program in late April. The department is planning an official introduction to the program for late April. 

“I have felt so grateful about the support I’ve received from the athletic department here and even the people outside of the athletic department,” Parisi said. “President Dr. Robin Holmes Sullivan has been a huge supporter, so has Yvette Clarke Castillo and Mark Pietrock, who is the athletic director — my boss, Jeremy. Everyone has just been very open minded and supportive of incorporating this and I am so grateful for that. It feels good to be supported in one’s vision.”

Beltran, who is approaching graduation, expressed hope about the future of student involvement once she has moved on.

“Some future goals Gina and I have discussed is to create a committee of student-athletes who can continue MVP when I graduate,” said Beltran. “I also hope to continue being a part of this program in any way possible, such as checking in and providing any possible ideas… An overall goal is to continue opening the conversation of mental health in sports and for LC student-athletes to feel supported through a program like MVP.”

MVP will continue to work with LC Athletics to build their new programs, and can be contacted through the department.

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