By Kim Swartz
Mental illness is hard for most people to discuss—it is cloaked with so many stigmas and unknowns. Now, combine mental illness with athletics, an arena that often encourages participants to “walk it off” and “keep going.” How do athletes talk about struggles with mental illness if their environment promotes strength and perseverance?
Devan Kane, a goalie on Sacred Heart University’s women’s ice hockey team, asked herself these questions during her freshman year. She had to have two knee surgeries, which prevented her from playing hockey—the sport she had loved since she was 12 years old. Instead, she had to sit on the bench watching her teammates play, which resulted in her own battles with mental health illnesses.
“Hockey was such a big part of my life that, when it was taken away from me, I had a hard time coping,” said Kane, who is now a senior studying marketing and finance.
Kane’s experience inspired the campus initiative Heart to Heart; (the semicolon in the name honors Project Semicolon, a nonprofit in Colorado dedicated to suicide prevention). The campaign raises awareness for mental illness in athletics and also encourages athletes to talk about their struggles.
When Kane was dealing with her own struggle, she turned to Casey Quinn, women’s ice hockey athletic trainer. “Every day I would be at practice on crutches,” Kane said. “I was getting more and more frustrated. I couldn’t skate or anything. Casey was there for so much of it. She helped me get the support I needed; she brought me out of that dark place, and I was able to talk about something that isn’t easy to talk about.”
Kane and Quinn started the concept for the campaign this past spring. They settled on Heart to Heart; for the name to incorporate the University, with the hope that the initiative starts “heart-to-heart conversations.”
“Our slogan is ‘SHUtdown the Stigma,’ because not only is there a huge stigma in mental health in general, but mix in the athlete population and it’s even worse,” Kane said. “We are told to fight through everything, whether it be a physical injury or just exhaustion—we are expected to power through.”
Kane sent a survey to SHU’s approximately 900 student-athletes. Of the 380 people who responded, 60 percent said they knew a SHU athlete who struggled with their mental health. “There is an issue,” Kane said.
Quinn said the Athletic Training Department built a relationship with the Wellness Center through the athletic training liaison, Kaitlyn Marrie. When students approach the athletic trainer for their sport, Marrie can point them in the right direction for the appropriate help. But there’s another problem. “There’s even a stigma connected with going to the Wellness Center,” Kane said. “It shows weakness.” To counteract that, one goal now for Heart to Heart; is to get a counselor to work in the Pitt Center, the place that SHU athletes’ lives revolve around.
Kane has advice for athletes who are struggling: “You are not alone. There are tons of athletes with injuries and there are people who understand. You can be ‘not okay.’ You don’t have to deny it; you can talk about it. And there are lots of resources—the staff members at the Wellness Center know what they’re doing.”
“We really want to make sure everyone is getting the help they need and using the valuable resources on campus,” Quinn added.
The women’s ice hockey team will play Holy Cross at the Sports Center of Connecticut in Shelton at 7:30 p.m. on January 26 and at 4 on January 27. The games will raise awareness of mental health and will be supported by Heart to Heart;. The athletes will wear special jerseys bringing awareness and showing their support for those who suffer from mental health illnesses.