By Sharing Her Story, Maryland’s Nikki Sliwak Aims To Advance Mental Health Conversation

In October, Nikki Sliwak — at the time a senior midfielder for the Maryland women’s lacrosse team — opened up about her difficulties with mental health. She penned a story for Athlete Humanity, a website started by her brother, Ryan, as a place for athletes to share their stories about mental health.

In May, Sliwak shared that story on a much bigger platform, the Maryland Athletics site. Since she shared the story May 15, Sliwak said the support has been “unbelievable.”

“I have received so much love and support,” Sliwak said. “I got texts from a bunch of my teammates. I got a bunch of Instagram [direct messages] from people I don’t even know writing how much they resonated with it and appreciated it. It was amazing just seeing the support.”

In her story for Athlete Humanity, Sliwak wrote that she could trace her struggles back to the death of her father, who worked at the World Trade Center and was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Sliwak didn’t start to process her father’s death until she was a teenager and developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

In high school, Sliwak developed an eating disorder, which she was able to work through before she arrived at Maryland. College brought a new set of challenges. In a new environment, she struggled with depression and anxiety. She scrutinized every little thing she did during the day, had panic attacks and sometimes even made herself vomit just to feel like she was in control.

“No one really knew until it hit my lowest point,” Sliwak said. “I didn’t want people to perceive me in a different way because the words depression and anxiety are a trigger for most people. So I didn’t want people to look at me in a different way.”

At the end of her sophomore year at Maryland, Sliwak went on an antidepressant. That allowed her to shift her mindset and become the person she wanted to be.

“I think that really helped me to get me out of the dark place where I felt that the world was against me,” Sliwak said. “It allowed me to interpret things differently and understand what [other people] were saying instead of feeling attacked by them. I read a lot of books about mindset and opened up to people around me. Once I became that type of person that people want to see me as, it allowed me to switch to let me control what I can control and I started seeing the light at the end of tunnel.”

As she became more comfortable in her own skin, Sliwak started to open up. In March, Sliwak talked about her experiences at a forum hosted by the university’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).

“I think she’s a total badass and I don’t know another way to put it,” Maryland women’s lacrosse head coach Cathy Reese said. “[Everyone] has different strengths, and it doesn’t matter how much you play if you can make an impact on people around you. … Her doing that has inspired so many people and it’s awesome.”

While Sliwak was part of two national championship teams at Maryland, she scored just seven goals in 24 games across four years. According to Reese, that didn’t stop her from being an excellent teammate.

That might carry over to another program soon. Though Sliwak graduated from Maryland, she’s exploring the possibility of playing lacrosse elsewhere next year. The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to spring athletes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“She can light up a room,” Reese said. “You’re around her and [she] just can make you smile. She’s such a sweetheart and caring person.”

In her 26 years in women’s lacrosse as a player and coach, Reese has seen a transformation in how sports deal with mental health. It was something people struggled with but didn’t have an outlet to talk about. In recent years, more athletes have shared their stories, and schools and professional teams have dedicated more resources to the issue.

Maryland hired Dr. Michelle Garvin in June 2017 as the director of clinical and sports psychology services, and Parker Tims joined the athletic department in December 2019 as a licensed clinical professional counselor. On Nov. 12, 2019, SAAC hosted the athletic department’s first “Maryland Cares” night, during which former USC volleyball player and mental health advocate Victoria Garrick spoke to student-athletes.

“It’s been great to see schools putting things [in place] to have mental health professionals and have the resources,” Reese said. “Twenty years ago it was something no one really talked about but now the discussion is coming forward.”

Even Sliwak said she’s seen the conversation around mental health change dramatically in her time at Maryland. After feeling like no one spoke about it when she was a freshman, she thinks things are headed in the right direction.

Before she went on an antidepressant, Sliwak thought she couldn’t let anyone know what she was going through, especially since she was on a pedestal as a player for one of the top women’s lacrosse programs in the country. Now, she knows what she can do off the field is just as important.

“Through the journey and through the whole process of my life I’ve definitely seen it as a way to help people and open up and really be real,” Sliwak said. “Being a role model off the field, I think I could make more of an impact.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Justin Fitzgerald

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