MVP staff speak out on mental health resources for athletes

By Rose Bialk

In spring of 2022, a program still unknown to most  Lewis & Clark students was founded. Gabby Beltrane ’23 was struggling with an ACL reconstruction rehabilitation, and opened up to Assistant Athletic Trainer Gina Parisi about the challenges she was facing. Since that moment of inspiration, the Mental Health Validation Program (MVP) has been evolving into a critically impactful resource for athletes at LC.

The MVP provides student athletes with mental health resources more tailored to their needs than a general counseling center. They offer Student Athlete Support Groups, Injured Athlete Support Groups and Emotional Regulation Workshops, as well as connections to sports psychologists. The LC website describes their mission as being “to break the stigma surrounding mental health for student-athletes by fostering a culture of holistic wellness.”

When Beltrane approached Parisi about wanting to create resources to help other struggling athletes, Parisi knew that it was a project worth digging into.

“I had been studying and practicing meditation and holistic practices that focused on mind, body and spirit health for 5 years, and saw the benefits to my own mental health,” Parisi said. “I wanted to bring what I knew to Lewis & Clark athletics, but was only working part time and there was no structure in place for me to offer my knowledge.”

Four months later, when Parisi was hired full-time, Beltrane started an independent project for credit to create an athlete-focused mental health program and asked Parisi to be her advisor. For Parisi, this was the start of a gratifying and impactful collaboration that made today’s MVP possible.

“This is a vision I’ve had since 2018, to bring mental health resources into the work I do as an Athletic Trainer,” Parisi said. “But I encountered pushback at a previous institution I worked at, so I was really honored and humbled that Lewis and Clark’s athletics department was supportive of my unique education in holistic health and desire to support the mental well-being of student athletes. Having a collaborator with a shared vision, and as passionate and hard-working as Gabby Beltrane was invaluable.”

Now that Beltrane has graduated, Parisi has fully taken over as MVP’s current steward. By connecting with the Counseling Center, she has also established a staff of therapists who hold office hours in Pamplin Sports Center. Glenn Jacob Oviatt and Christabel Léonce are the primary Counseling Center liaisons, working alongside Sports Social Work Intern Sierra Renham.

“I’m drawn to this work for the opportunity to accompany students during such an exciting, challenging and formative stage of life,” Jacob Oviatt said. “It’s quite meaningful to provide support for someone’s work toward personal wellness while valuing their own unique journey and fullness of their humanity.”

In addition to therapy sessions, workshops are an important part of the MVP. Parisi reached out to Léonce to lead two of them, one in collaboration with a graduate student.

“The first (workshop) I led was on emotional regulation,” Léonce said. “It was based on mental health coping, things that athletes can use in their day-to-day life… I focused a lot on emotions, knowing emotions, recognizing emotions, the importance of knowing what you’re dealing with and using the right tool for it because a lot of the time we might be using a hammer and trying to saw something and it’s not going to saw it.”

If you are interested in talking with someone in the MVP, drop in hours are Tuesdays from 1-4 p.m. and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. in Zehntbauer Swimming Pavilion room 126. As part of making mental health less stigmatized and more accessible, Léonce remarks on the importance of the MVP satellite offices being located within Pamplin so it is more convenient for athletes to integrate participation with the program into their routines.

“I do a lot of outreach, trying to raise awareness of mental health with different groups, minority groups specifically,” Léonce said. “So that can be people of color, the queer community and I think athletes tend to be a minority group on a college campus because they are kind of sequestered in a corner.”

Performance anxiety and injuries that result in questioning identity around being an athlete are two of the biggest issues that Léonce sees come up with athletes as a minority community on our campus. 

“I think the most important aspect of my work is empathy and presence,” Parisi said. “We live in a culture that not only conditions us to believe our worth and value comes from productivity and achievement, but also that being emotional is weak, inconvenient and a burden to other people. In the subculture of athletics, it’s even worse because for so long athletes have been told to be ‘mentally tough’ which has translated to ‘repress your emotions.’”

Parisi offers new ideas to reframe how we understand and respond to our emotions.

“I think being present for someone in their struggles and offering empathy eventually leads to them being able to cultivate self-empathy (being able to relate to oneself from a place of care, validation, and understanding).” 

The MVP is not only for people experiencing more severe mental health struggles such as anxiety or depression. It is a resource for anyone who wants to be more involved in bringing to light the nuanced circumstances of the student athletes.

“You don’t have to have a ‘mental health problem’ to come participate,” Parisi said. “We’re here talking about things like ‘what are boundaries?’ ‘How to manage negative self-talk?’ ‘What is diet culture and how does it influence how I relate to food and my body?’”

The MVP is still relatively new, and with each new member that gets involved, the program will evolve and expand. 

“A few goals for the program is to have a peer support network where student athletes can facilitate crisis management and support groups, a Youtube channel with educational content and a dedicated staff member to coordinate the program,” Parisi said.

Parisi wants to make sure that students are informed about the MVP and what it has to offer. 

“You can find out about when our workshops and groups are by following us on Instagram @MVP.LC or going to our new website,” Parisi said. “The continuation and development of this program depends on student athlete support. If you are a student athlete, please consider helping us out by submitting your feedback.”

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