By Molly McCarthy, Office of Communications at Le Moyne College
Let’s face it: college can be challenging. Students find themselves living away from home for the first time, navigating new relationships and responsibilities, as well as rigorous academic work. It can be taxing, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.
In the midst of the pandemic, many schools are reporting surges in anxiety and depression among their undergraduate students who, in addition to handling demanding course loads, are also coping with a historic global health crisis and the economic challenges associated with it. With their emphasis on cura personalis, leaders of Jesuit colleges and universities in particular are asking themselves: How can we best support our students – mind, body and spirit – so that they can go on to build lives of meaning and success?
At Le Moyne College, caring for students begins with acknowledging that mental health is as important as physical health. It also means breaking the stigma that too often leads students to be silent about the challenges they are facing. Last fall, through the Athletic Department’s Inside The L initiative and its focus on mental health programming, the College’s student-athletes learned how to speak out for mental health after attending a virtual meeting with Ivy Watts: a former track and field star at the University of New Haven, who now devotes much of her time to sharing her mental health journey with today’s students.
Watts’ story is powerful. As an undergraduate student, she garnered an impressive array of academic and athletic accolades, including being named Northeast-10 Woman of the Year and a top 30 finalist for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award. Yet, despite these accomplishments, she found herself riddled with self-doubt. As she explained to the Le Moyne students, she did not feel worthy, and struggled with anxiety and depression.
Like many student-athletes, Watts was driven to succeed, to contribute to her team, and to work through challenges and even pain; asking for help did not come naturally to her. However, since her graduation in 2015, Watts has reflected on her experience and how it shaped her. She earned a Master’s degree in public health and become certified in mental health first aid. Now, she has made it her mission to share her story and to encourage others to do the same, by guiding them toward self-acceptance and self-love.
In short, she explained to the students, it’s okay to not always be okay.
“Too often, students going through something incredibly difficult will say, ‘I can handle this. It’s really not that bad,’” says Maria Randazzo, director of Le Moyne’s Wellness Center for Health and Counseling. “They don’t seek the help they need – and deserve. And, as a result, their grades – and relationships – suffer. The beauty of this program (with help from Watts) is that, as the students went through it, they were encouraged to share challenges they may be facing without fear of ridicule or judgment. It reinforced to them how important it is to prioritize your mental as well as your physical health.”
The student-athletes who participated in the mental health initiative were encouraged not just to listen to Watts’ stories, but to share their own, and to look out for their teammates. “Ivy’s story is truly empowering, and she shares it beautifully,” says Ellie Sommers, a member of the women’s swim and dive team. “But what is truly beautiful about it is how universal it is. So many people experience the same worries and struggles that she describes. She makes it clear that it’s not just okay to talk about those struggles, it’s also vital.”
The work that began with Sommers and her teammates will not end with them. The College’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee is taking the lead on sharing mental health resources – which includes a series of modules on such topics as self-care and self-worth, strength, resilience and positivity, and dealing with uncertainty – with the rest of the Le Moyne community. The College is now working to make these resources available to the entire student population, at any time, free of cost, as a result of the Northeast 10-Conference’s partnership with Watts.
Le Moyne leaders hope that students will be able to develop the skills necessary to care for themselves now and throughout the rest of their lives – to deal with setbacks, to set boundaries, and to make time for rest, exercise and nutrition. It will be a campus-wide effort, including everyone from Academic Affairs to Campus Ministry to Career Advising and Development.
“We teach our students to “Be the Change,’” says Jen Fabian ’13, assistant athletics director for compliance and marketing and senior woman administrator. “We are a team and we all have a responsibility to look out for one another. You may never know what someone else is going through and how you may be able to help them.”
For more information about the Le Moyne Athletic Department’s Inside The L culture, please visit insidethel.com.