A challenging year prompts a look at mental health for Dartmouth student-athletes

  • Kat Grgic is a Dartmouth College senior at the college. She missed competition with the soccer team due to the pandemic in 2020. Grgic was photographed during practice with the team at Graham Indoor Practice Facility in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept., 15, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Dartmouth College senior Kat Grgic practices with the women's soccer team at Graham Indoor Practice Facility in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept., 15, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Dartmouth College senior Kat Grgic crosses the ball during practice with the women's soccer team at Graham Indoor Practice Facility in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept., 15, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • As assistant athletic director for leadership and mental performance at Dartmouth College, Stephen Gonzalez, photographed at Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, works with student athletes to develop mental skills and habits to improve their performance and potential. “I’ve been a student athlete at the division one level and I try to leverage that experience to connect,” said Gonzalez, who ran cross country at the University of Pittsburg of building trust with student athletes. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth College senior Taurus Samuels, of San Diego, Calif., plays catch with fellow members of the college's basketball team, including Nathaniel Ogbu, of Stone Mountain, Georgia, right, before an informal team meeting on the college green in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Dartmouth College senior Taurus Samuels, of San Diego, Calif., second from right, listens during an informal meeting of the basketball team to discuss team standards on the college green in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. From left are Dusan Neskovic, of Banja Luka, Bosnia, Paul Hudson, of Charlotte, N.C., and Ryan Cornish, of Rockville, Md., right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2021 7:06:43 PM
Modified: 9/18/2021 7:06:43 PM

Kat Grgic felt alone.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic back home with her family in Mississauga, Ontario, the Dartmouth College women’s soccer defender alternated between productive periods of regular workouts and funks when she couldn’t muster the energy for a simple run.

Zoom meetings with her teammates and coaches helped, but she couldn’t help feeling isolated. And when she returned to Hanover for classes during the last academic year, it made the problem worse. Her squad of friends was still attending school remotely, and the strict COVID-19 precautions on campus made it tough to socialize with the students who were around.

“There’s seven of us in my class, and my six friends just weren’t here. I was here completely by myself,” Grgic said.

“I think it was just too many readjustments one after the other, that I was just exhausted and was like, ‘OK, I don’t think I can do this. I think this is a little difficult for me, and I need some help adjusting,’ ” she continued.

Grgic didn’t want to burden her teammates who couldn’t be on campus with her struggles, so she relied on her family and friends back home for support. Still, they couldn’t fully relate to her situation at Dartmouth.

Throughout, Grgic continued to feel like she was facing a mental health challenge on her own. She thought about taking a step back to give herself a break, but she found that option came with its own stressors and complications.

“It was just hard to find that balance between the academics, what little athletics we were able to participate in and just the social aspect that was nowhere near normal” Grgic said.

Headed into a school year that many hope will approach “normal,” college officials and Big Green athletes hope progress made acknowledging the importance of mental illness will continue, and that students will have the resources they need to feel supported this academic year.

The public eye

The mental health of athletes generated a national conversation over the summer thanks to actions of a couple of superstars.

Naomi Osaka withdrew from tennis’s French Open in May, citing mental health concerns, and then sat out Wimbledon in July for the same reason. On social media, she posted openly about bouts with depression and anxiety and has continued to do so since her return to the court.

In August, gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from all but a couple of events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to focus on her mental health, and she too was candid about her struggles.

For Dartmouth field hockey senior Cece Monnin, mental health concerns in collegiate athletics predated this summer’s high-profile cases, or even the pandemic, which has been blamed for a broad rise in mental health issues among young people.

“Coming into college from high school, you learn things like time management, you learn what works for you, but there’s so many changes going on in college.” she said. “My freshman year, mental health was pretty hard for me.”

She said she later found out that the other three freshmen on her team all had similar mental health struggles, but nobody wanted to talk about it because they didn’t want to be the one to drag down morale.

“It sometimes goes under the radar,” Monnin said. “You’re trying so hard to be the best on the outside so that you can play, but there’s this idea that you want to be as strong as possible. I think that leads to a lot of problems and people not talking about when things are hard.”

Mental health concerns for athletes can be especially acute in the Ivy League. Not only do athletes face the same juggling act that all student-athletes manage, but they also add the pressure of taking courses at an elite level. That academic pressure alone can take a toll on students’ mental health.

Women’s soccer senior Mist Grönvold said that double dose of pressure definitely causes problems for some Ivy athletes.

“Being in an environment where everyone is great at school, and everyone is great at their sport, it’s easy sometimes to feel like you’re not good enough,” Grönvold said. “That can impact the way you perceive yourself.”

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those issues for Ivy League athletes, who all missed at least one season when the league canceled all sports in 2020-21.

Men’s basketball senior Taurus Samuels was coming off a year in which he had earned more playing time. Even after spring sports were curtailed, he spent the summer of 2020 working on his game. He tried to stay optimistic — even after sports were canceled in fall 2020 — that winter sports would go on.

Once basketball was called off, he questioned the necessity of continuing to work.

“You wake up a lot of times, especially in the winter, and you’re like, ‘Do I really need to go run sprints right now? We’re not gonna play for a year,’ ” Samuels said. “Or, ‘Do I have to get shots up? Does it matter?’ ”

Samuels, a psychology major, has a particular interest in mental health.

“Mental health is just as, if not more, important than your physical health, especially as a student-athlete, but just as a student in general at an Ivy League school,” Samuels said.

Help available

Peter Roby, Dartmouth’s interim athletic director, said one of the most important things the college can do is encourage students to talk openly about mental health.

“The idea is to create the conversation, to mainstream the conversation, so that people know it’s not in the shadows,” Roby said. “We’re not hiding it, and we want people to be open to the resources and not make judgments about others who are taking advantage of the resources.”

One of those resources is Dr. Stephen Gonzalez, who works at Dartmouth Peak Performance, known on campus as DP2.

Gonzalez’s official title is assistant athletic director for leadership and mental performance. He organizes leadership programming for all Dartmouth teams and student-athletes, including mental skills training. While DP2 offers traditional sports psychology to students, Gonzalez’s training is a nonclinical approach. He says it’s akin to way a high school health classes teaches about physical activity and healthy eating.

“(Mental health) doesn’t just mean disorder or disease,” Gonzalez said. “The sports world has had a big reckoning with this in the last several years, with more and more athletes speaking about it.

“Yes, depression and anxiety tend to take center stage with some of those discussions. But a lot of athletes also talk about the work they do in order to maintain balance, in order to maintain a sense of love and joy with what they’re doing and maintain a sense of goal-directedness that’s healthy. And it isn’t something that causes them to take on unhealthy habits or unsustainable things that could eventually lead to mental health challenges later in life.”

Gonzalez is available for team and one-on-one consultations. In the sessions, he works with students on things such as performance plans, goal achievement and defining success.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzalez drew from his previous experience working with the military to emphasize readiness and resilience.

“I told the student-athletes, ‘You don’t know when you’re going to get the chance to play again, so you have to stay ready. Our soldiers don’t plan for a particular war. They don’t choose to go to war, but they’re always ready for it,’ ” Gonzalez said.

Samuels worked with Gonzalez throughout the pandemic when he hit some low points, and they still meet regularly.

“He’s great. Full of energy, great guy, always willing to help,” Samuels said. “He goes to different teams, talks to them about leadership, how to be a better cohesive unit. And he’s also available to meet one-on-one, so I meet with him to work on (being) a better leader for my teammates and for our team.

“And I also (talked) with him like, ‘I went through a lot of struggles mentally this past season, my freshman year, even my whole career. How do I get better mentally and stronger mentally so I can be a better athlete?’ ”

Systemic change

Some students, such as Grgic, don’t blame the college for any of the challenges she had the past 18 months. She said Dartmouth administrators went into last fall just as uncertain about the situation as the students.

“That was our first term back on campus, and the college and athletic department just didn’t know what resources to set up (and) how in-demand they would be,” Grgic said. “I think I was going in blind, the college was going in blind, our athletic department was going in blind, and they did their best to figure it out. But obviously there can always be improvements.”

Others, such as Monnin, felt that the college knew its students were dealing with a challenging period but weren’t proactive enough with providing resources.

“I met with a professor who I had my freshman year. And (she) very bluntly (said), ‘All of the students in my class, I can tell that they’re all depressed because they wake up, they join class from their bed and everything they’re writing is in confidence with me. And I can just (tell) that they’re all so lonely,’ ” Monnin said. “There’s the recognition that people were feeling that way, but not the, ‘What can we do about it?’ and that was my frustration with Dartmouth.”

Samuels said that while the athletic department’s mental health resources are sufficient, Dick’s House not having enough counselors during the last year for the general student population was unacceptable.

That was a primary criticism of Dartmouth after two students who died by suicide in November and May. Following protests calling for a greater emphasis on mental health, the college announced last spring it would bring in two more counselors to serve students.

Grönvold, who is from Iceland, brings a different perspective to Dartmouth’s support for mental health of students and student-athletes. Compared with her home country, she said, care at Dartmouth and in the U.S. is not nearly as accessible or widespread.

“I’ve never felt uncomfortable addressing (mental health) here, because at home it’s very standard,” Grönvold said. “In theory, everyone should be able to have access to a therapist if they need it, and that should be for free. Just giving everyone access and opportunity to have these resources, I think, is crucial.”

Roby said that as this academic year begins, he thinks there are appropriate resources available for athletes and for the student body as a whole.

Gonzalez questioned whether there can really be such a thing as sufficient mental health support.

“I don’t know what number to place on how many counselors does one need at a school and what is an acceptable time between appointments. As a non-student here, I can’t speak to the student experience,” Gonzalez said. “I do know that the people that are in those roles are working tirelessly to not just have individual appointments but to have widespread programming to get in front of and be able to break down stigmas as much as possible.”

Roby said his message to a student-athlete who may be struggling mentally is that he wants them to be at their best. And just as he’d emphasize treatment and training for a physical injury, he wants the athletes to seek help when they’re not feeling right mentally.

“Let us help you. Don’t be afraid. There’s no stigma attached to doing what’s in your best interest,” Roby said. “Anybody that would look at you differently or (as lesser) because you came forward and said that you’ve got challenges that you want to address, then they really don’t really care about you. Anybody that cares about you wants you to get the help that you need.

“There’s no place for stigmas when it comes to this stuff because it can be a life or death situation.”

Seth Tow can be reached at stow@vnews.com.

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