The image of strong, confident college athletes is ingrained in American culture, but that stereotype isn’t always the reality.
Student-athletes, at the cusp of adulthood and dealing with the pressures of college and intense competition, can often use some help, and that’s the idea at UMBC behind the school’s “Retriever Project,” a bold mental health initiative at the forefront of service to student-athletes at the school.
A leader of the group championing the project, redshirt junior volleyball player Taylor Dunn, understands the challenges student-athletes face.
“Athletes in college, they were the top stars in high school and club and travel. They were it,” Dunn said. “So, if they’re not playing or they’re injured, it hits you hard. You don’t know how to handle it or who to talk to.”
Beyond athletics, college age is just a particular trouble spot for mental health, according to recent Center for Disease Control statistics. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States — but second most among college-aged students — and has risen more than 30 percent in half the states since 1999.
“As a coach at any level, you are cognizant of what student-athletes are going through,” said UMBC assistant lacrosse coach Jamison Koesterer, the athletic department’s adviser for the project. “The pressures are different, but they’re real. For whatever reason, kids struggle, a lot of things to have to balance whether it’s from the family, from friends or with other external pressures.”
It’s UMBC student-athletes who actually head up the Retriever Project, specifically Dunn of Virginia Beach, Va., who will graduate this winter but has another year of eligibility, and lacrosse junior Justin Barragan of Temecula, Calif.
“We’re just like everyone else,” Barragan said. “We have the same problems. We might even have a little more. It’s just the fact that a lot of student-athletes don’t have that outlet, that way to de-stress, and just talk to someone. They might be 3,000 miles away from home like myself, or they just might not have someone they trust to talk to so they can get all those emotions out and not bottle them up.”
Dunn and Barragan were encouraged by a large turnout for their fledgling organization at the first meeting this fall. Dunn estimates some 30 Retriever athletes attended, the majority of whom were freshmen, which should help build a firm base for the future.
The project originated at UMBC in the spring of 2018 as a sort of “mental health Olympics,” so popular and important that the school’s America East Conference even adopted the original initiative for all nine-member schools to participate. The America East then went further, mandating mental health advisors at all schools for student-athletes and establishing #BetterTo9ether, dedicated to creating a more mentally healthy environment in athletics.
The Retrievers were already on their way with an on-campus presence in athletics that was started last year by students, assistant athletic director Abbie Day, associate AD/sports medicine Stacy Carone and members of the university’s Health and Wellness Office. The support group formally initiated this fall as “The Retriever Project.”
The stated goals are to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, to raise awareness of the issue and to help promote resiliency in student-athletes who are dealing with such issues or might be susceptible. Concerned students and staff hope to embody the core values of UMBC Athletics with mental health programming for student-athletes, coaches and the athletic staff. The UMBC Health and Wellness office and sports medicine are also key contributors to the team effort.
“We’re in the infancy stages,” Koesterer said. “We have goals to reach out to the larger student population on campus, but we’re starting small with the student-athletes. We’ve had a couple of events so far and my role is just to help them organize, provide direction, help generate ideas.”
Koesterer “recruited” Barragan to the group, but it was a natural fit from the beginning. Barragan’s mother works in health care administration and his father is a California Highway Patrol officer, both keenly in-tune with mental health concerns. Two older brothers in the military are also trained to weather such personal storms, as well.
“I’ve always been a huge advocate of mental health,” Barragan said. “I’ve seen people affected by it, and my dad has been involved with and ran several organizations like this. I’ve always been interested but never had an outlet I could run with and latch on to.”
Barragan said hearing statistics about the issue “widened [his] eyes. Mental health affects everyone, but student-athletes are overlooked because we’re supposed to be mentally tough and just keep on going. It’s a stigma because student-athletes are seen as sort of pampered, typically taken care of in ways other students are not. This is going to open up a lot more eyes and give student-athletes an outlet. It already has.”
Dunn was drawn to the project’s neophyte beginnings last year, attending meetings and happy to step into a leadership role to keep things moving as the Retriever Project has picked up steam.
“I have a lot of close friends who have gone through stuff like this and to be honest, I really didn’t know what to do or what to say,” Dunn said. “I didn’t know the resources that were available, and I just felt helpless. This has helped so much.”
Dunn had some trials of her own as a freshman when she was told she would redshirt.
“It was really hard for me. It wasn’t extreme, but it was something that made me realize how people feel, how factors can hit you so hard,” Dunn said. “It makes you nervous, too, because you don’t want to be that person.”
Koesterer said that like most athletic departments, UMBC doesn’t currently have a full-time mental health physician or psychiatrist, though there is a mind-wellness office on campus available to all students.
“Our sports medicine department does a great job of having dialogue with kids and referring them to doctors, but they don’t have the time or resources to be specific to this one aspect,” Koesterer said. “There’s a need for it, and I think there are universities within our conference and certainly in the country that do something like this. Also, it was just something we needed to do.”
The organization has already had three open forums this school year, one at a home soccer game, one at a volleyball match and one at the student-athletic academic center.
“We have partnered with [the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee on campus] and anytime they put on an event we tag along and put up a table,” Koesterer said. “We had 25 kids at our last event, and the growth is important.
“Justin and Taylor have done a great job guiding information and statistics and the number of kids that are actually dealing with it. Whether it’s gender-related or student-athlete-related, everyone goes through something. Sharing that information with the student-athletes, letting them know they’re not alone, it’s important.”
There’s more front-line, hands-on help on the way, too, according to Koesterer, who said the Retrievers’ real-life mascot, an 11-month-old puppy named “Chip” is scheduled to start showing up at Retriever Project gatherings. He’s UMBC’s new comfort Retriever.
Koesterer, who has had family members deal with depression and developed an interest in the issue, stressed the importance of the group’s support for their fellow student-athletes as they all enter exams at the college.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re picking up what other schools are doing,” Koesterer said. “Boise State has a great program we’re looking at. You’ve got to do more than redirect students to a webpage or external service. You want to have something tangible that can help. That’s our main goal.”
“It’s only as a team that we can break the mental health stigma,” Barragan said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UMBC Athletic Communications