Mental Health A Constant Focus For Utah State
10 min read

Mental Health A Constant Focus For Utah State

With the help of advocates like Hilinski's Hope, @RachelBaribeau of @CTNkingandqueen and head coach @CHbanderson, mental health awareness has taken center stage for @USUFootball
Mental Health A Constant Focus For Utah State
Utah State's green ribbon for mental health awareness (Photo via Utah State Athletics)

Utah State is in the midst of a week of mental health awareness ahead of its Sept. 24 matchup with UNLV. The Aggies have taken to social media, sharing messages of support and promoting resources designed to help those struggling. And head coach Blake Anderson is leading the charge.

"We welcome the fanbase and the Valley to join with us over the next week and a half – especially this week – as we promote mental health awareness," Anderson said. "This is something our staff and our players have had a lot of conversation about. There's a passion inside our building, clearly, for this. My recent background, and what's gone on in my family is something they are familiar with, but also a handful of guys on our staff and our players as well have a passion for this.

"We've had several guest speakers come in and address this topic, one of whom will partner with us this weekend and the other of whom will partner with us next weekend. Coach Arroyo and UNLV will be joining us as well, we'll be wearing green ribbon stickers on the helmets on both sidelines and coaches will be wearing ribbons on their shirts as well. Rachel Baribeau with Changing The Narrative, who speaks at both schools, will come and join us at this game this week.

"Next week, when we go to BYU, we'll be partnering with Hilinksi's Hope – which is Mark and Kim Hilinski, who travel all over the country sharing their son Tyler's story and talking about suicide prevention and mental health. We'll be releasing resources and, as we get closer to the game, we'll be emphasizing support for anyone who may have their eyes on what we're doing, offering support for anyone who may be dealing with the effects of mental health – dark thoughts, depression and suicide – in their family."

But, Utah State's passion for mental health advocacy extends far beyond its work with guest speakers and program-wide initiatives – like this week's Mental Health Game against UNLV, which features a partnership with I'm Changing The Narrative. It's a passion rooted in tragedy, in first-hand experiences with the darkness of mental health crises.

In a video shared to the Utah State football Twitter account on Sept. 19, Anderson opened up for the first time publicly about his son Cason, who died by suicide in February.

"Our lives changed forever on Feb. 28, 2022, just six months ago," Anderson shared in the video. "(I got) a phone call from my brother on a Monday morning told me that Cason didn't show up for work this morning, and (that) nobody (could) find him.

"We had all been reaching out to him. I talked to him on Thursday – we had a great conversation, he was laughing his head off and cutting up like he always does. On Friday night he was playing PlayStation with his brothers and a group of guys like he did pretty much every night. At midnight, 12:30ish the guys were starting to get done with playing and he said, 'Hey guys, are you going to be on again tomorrow?' and they said yeah.

"...But, somewhere in the middle of the night, when everyone was gone, Cason went to a place that was so dark that he didn't want to do it anymore. He didn't want to be here anymore. And he took his own life. My brother had to call me and tell me that they had found Cason, that he was gone and he'd taken his own life. Our lives forever changed that morning. A piece of me and a piece of our family is gone and will never come back."

For Baribeau, a longtime friend of Anderson's dating back to her time as a reporter, his decision to share his heartbreaking story came as a surprise, but also an immensely important moment for the mental health awareness movement in college athletics and beyond.

"Last Friday, I got word from my contacts within football that he had not slept the night before and had decided that it was time," Baribeau, the founder of I'm Changing The Narrative, told The Aggship. "He made that video last Friday, it was released on Monday. I was at the cleaners when I got word, and I started crying because I knew the impact that video would have. I knew that it would simultaneously rip people's hearts out, from a father's perspective, but that it would also do a tremendous amount of healing and a tremendous amount of taking away the shame and the stigma of asking for help."

Therein lies the focus for Utah State, Anderson, and these advocacy groups. Several current Aggies have taken to video to share their own stories, joining a growing group of athletes – professional and amateur– and coaches to speak publicly about their experiences. It's all done in service of the effort to destigmatize asking for help and to normalize prioritizing mental health.

For those in public-facing industries like college football, it's especially important – both in understanding that there's no shame in struggling with mental health and in sharing that message with other athletes, coaches and those who follow the sport.

"It is your physical health, it's the brain on top of your body," Baribeau said. "We were talking about it before the pandemic, but that time really did a doozy on all of us as human beings. And athletes now, more than ever, feel okay to ask for help. The interesting part of it is, a couple of years back and maybe even before the pandemic, organizations would say, 'Oh, well, we have a therapist.'

"Well, it's great that you have a therapist, but are you darkening the doorways of that therapist? Almost every school has resources, but are they using the resources? More and more, we see athletes who are doing that. And you have to think about, too, the people who are watching them. That's what I teach.

"I've been teaching this for six years: use your platform. You have a platform. Be mindful of what you're putting on social media. There's a little boy, there's an older man, there's a lady that looks up to you, who thinks you hung the moon and stars. What are you telling them? What are you using your platform for? You were not born to satisfy your own desires and die. You're born to leave a legacy."

The bravery of professional athletes like Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, and of other college football coaches like Ohio State's Ryan Day, Minnesota's P.J. Fleck and Maryland's Mike Locksley, has had a noticeable impact – even within the football building at Utah State.

"The last couple of years, especially, I think you've seen more professional athletes step out, and more coaches start to do the same," Anderson told The Aggship. "We all grew up just about the same way. We're all about the same age and we grew up in a different era. I think we're all being a little bit more open-minded about it and realizing that it's something we need to be more vocal about. Dak Prescott, Kevin Love and other guys who I know have come out in recent years and used their platforms for this. It's becoming more and more immediate, more necessary.

"We're in a physical sport, (the thinking being that) you have to be a man's man, you have to be tough, you can't show weakness. And to see guys who play at a high level being vulnerable and speaking up, I think it opens the door for other people to do the same. You can still be good at what you do. You can still be tough. You can even still be physically violent if you need to in your sport – while showing that you struggle. That's the goal, letting guys know that, 'If you are struggling, man, you're not weak.' It takes strength to step up and speak up."

For as much progress as groups like I'm Changing The Narrative or Hilinski's Hope have helped usher in, the fight to spread awareness exists because there is a stigma around mental health issues, especially in football. It's an extremely personal, difficult battle for many young athletes to reckon with – one that for decades was cast aside in American culture, and within locker rooms around the country.

To fight a personal battle, Utah State is focusing on individuals. It has welcomed advocates who emphasize connecting with players and coaches to break down the stigma around the mental health struggles that millions of Americans – especially young Americans – face daily.

"I've learned, especially during the pandemic, that people shouldn't have to go through social media if they're experiencing a crisis or if they just need somebody to talk to," Baribeau said. "So I give them my cellphone number. I connect with the athletes and stay in contact with them."

Breaking down those barriers requires trust and time. Utah State has worked to cultivate a comfortable, familial atmosphere and keeps all doors open for players whenever they need it, but it's also offered significant access to speakers like Baribeau to allow that trust to build.

"She's been around the guys enough now, it has kind of broken down that wall, where they feel like they can talk," Anderson said. "A lot of guys ask questions, and that's not something, in a room of 120 dudes, (that happens a lot). A lot of times, guys don't want to ask questions. She has encouraged them to use their voices, their platforms. And to never feel like you are showing weakness by stepping up and saying, 'Hey man, I need help.' "

It's a time- and care-intensive process, but the approach has clicked for many Aggies.

"One of the speakers who I really connected with – and she's come in a couple of times – was Rachel Baribeau," offensive tackle Jacob South said. "She has done a really great job of coming and talking to the guys. That's something that isn't really talked about a whole lot in the football world. We're always just talking about football.

"There are a lot of guys who do struggle with their mental health, so it's nice to have someone come in and talk to you, to say, 'You're not alone in this' or 'There are people wanting to talk to you about this, wanting to listen.' She's a really great resource Coach Anderson brought in. I'm really grateful we're having this week that's dedicated to that cause because it's really important. Especially with college athletes."

Athletes at other schools have had similar experiences, be it in their work with I'm Changing The Narrative or other advocacy groups. There's a connective tissue in these success stories of athletes and coaches being made more comfortable with these topics, and being more willing to discuss them. Or, in simpler terms, normalization.

"I got a message from a mother, and this happens a lot, but this particular message struck me," Baribeau said. "She said, 'Look, I've been talking to my son for years about talking to a therapist. And for whatever reason, he hasn't. He's had a hard childhood. But whatever you said to him, to the team the other night, the next day he woke up, walked over and got himself therapy on campus.

"And it's not that I say anything magical. It's that we are in a place and time in the world where we need every person who has breath in their lungs to speak on mental health. We need children, adults, stars, you, pink, purple, black, white, young and old. Everybody.

"The more people we have talking about it, the more we normalize it and the fewer people feel alone and isolated. I know what isolation can do. That's where we get into trouble as human beings and have either the ideations or the suicide attempts or, God forbid, people who go through with it. It's about normalizing these conversations about mental health and normalizing the fact that we all struggle."

Even Anderson, who stands at the forefront of these efforts at Utah State, is learning valuable lessons from guest speakers and continuing to break from the thinking that once permeated the sport (and in some places, still does).

"I'm probably not that different from most guys my age – athletes especially," Anderson continued in his social media video. "I grew up in an era and a time when, as a man, you didn't show that you were hurting. You didn't show that you had pain and you didn't cry. It was the "get up, dust yourself off, tape it up and get back to work" kind of mentality and unfortunately, I probably spent most of my life as a father and as a coach teaching my kids the same way."

His passion for destigmatizing asking for health and his willingness to learn and grow has set him apart. Baribeau has spoken to dozens of programs and worked with dozens of coaches and thousands of athletes. In Anderson, she sees true buy-in, and a true passion for doing the work to better equip his players for life, both during and beyond football. It's why Utah State is hosting one of three Mental Health Games this season – which, Baribeau says, Anderson agreed to immediately when she asked.

"Look, I've been to (a lot of) schools," Baribeau said. "There are some schools that have me in, they check the box, and even though we call back and follow up and do all those things, we never hear from them again. Blake is 1000 percent serious about this, because of his tragic circumstances, but even before that he was 1000 percent bought into the total well-being of his players: mind, body, spirit and psychology. All of it. He truly cares about them, 365 days a year. He's bought in.

"Even before his son tragically took his life, he was bought in. There's a difference. There's a reason the three mental health games that we are hosting are partnered with P.J. Fleck (Minnesota), Mike Locksley (Maryland) and Blake Anderson (Utah State). Save for Ryan Day, those are three of the most passionate, outspoken and totally bought-in coaches in college football, in my opinion, on mental health. And they've all tragically lost a child."

That commitment to the mental well-being of the athletes upon whom Utah State football depends is what makes this week of mental health awareness and support just the tip of the iceberg.

The work doesn't happen in one week. It doesn't happen in one game. It happens every day, in everything happening within a football program. To maintain a mentally healthy group requires commitment to education, openness and trust. And with an advocate as strong as Anderson at the command, Utah State is well on its way.

"Every time something pops up in the media – whether it's a mistake somebody made or a tragedy – we try to throw those up on the screen daily to keep guys grounded and to encourage them (to speak out)," Anderson said. "You have to have balance. If you don't have balance, they're going to lose the ability to maintain this. It's too much to handle without balance.

"That atmosphere never changes for us. We do life together. Doors are open. There's been a lot of time spent in our homes, over the dinner table, over the ping pong table or the pool table. We try to do life as much as we do ball. You can't get so narrow-minded that you lose sight of these kids. They're kids, and life is happening for them. Our doors are always open for guys to come in and share what's on their hearts, what's going on."