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New initiative aims to help student athletes living with mental illness

Photo credit: Tina Wallace

Two former university athletes work together to combat issues with mental health in sports.

Former University of Ottawa student Samantha DeLenardo and current Carleton University student Krista Van Slingerland launched the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) on March 15 in a bid to bring awareness on an issue they feel deserves more recognition.

“In a few words, athletes shouldn’t go through what I went through unsupported,” said Van Slingerland, a fourth-year public affairs and policy management major. “I played three years of varsity basketball but my career ended prematurely because of mental illness.”

It’s her personal experience and her desire not to see that repeat for other student athletes that drove Van Slingerland to contact DeLenardo after reading her thesis on mental health in men’s football. After a quick coffee date, the pair knew they’d work well together forming the new organization, said DeLenardo.

“Athletes tend of have the same mentality, so Sam and I just clicked right away and we’ve been working together ever since.”

With the organization in its infancy, SAMHI is a shell of what Van Slingerland and DeLenardo hope it will be, but the pair is working to get funding to help build the initiative.  The plan is for a country-wide organization that directs students toward athlete-specific services in their area and to start a dialogue to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

“We want to find resources,” Van Slingerland said. “Maybe sports psychologists or physiologists who have competed in their lifetime who really understand the athletics mentality and can help athletes through their problems from an approach that speaks to them.”

Van Slingerland’s vision for SAMHI also includes a focus on advocating on the behalf of students who are experiencing mental health issues.

“When you’re severely depressed or experiencing anxiety, you’re bipolar, or whatever your mental illness is, you can’t advocate for yourself,” said Van Slingerland. “So that’s where SAMHI would step in to advocate on behalf of student athletes.”

The initiative also hopes to take the emphasis away from research that focuses on how to prepare players mentally, and shift it towards making sure they are always mentally healthy.

“Psychology, in terms of sports has always focused on the performance aspect, how to get yourself into a zone where you can perform at your peak,” Van Slingerhand said. “But never has it really focused on the mental health or holistic health of athletes.”

She hopes student athletes can find the support they need to battle through their mental illness.

“When I was in the middle of it, I had no idea how I could have had better support, but if SAMHI had taught my coaches and my team how to better  support me, then maybe I could have kept playing.”