Breaking the toxic combination of sports and mental health

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It would not be a stretch to call 2020 one of the hardest years, collectively, for Americans in recent memory. Aside from the obvious with COVID-19 lockdowns and the more than 190,000 deaths (as it stands), racial tensions are at the highest level since the Civil Rights era, the sky above San Francisco is a smoggy orange and it seems like every month brings about new tragedy and hardship.

Mental health in America is at an all-time low, with countless factors attributing to depression, anxiety, stress and suicidal tendencies among Americans at every age group. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness, 1 in 25 Americans suffer from severe mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34.

Mental health in sports especially still is not taken as seriously as needed, evidenced just Thursday (on National Suicide Prevention Day no less) by television sports personality Skip Bayless. Bayless would go on to essentially call Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott weak for opening up about his mental health struggles during quarantine after the loss of his brother to suicide. It was that exact kind of ignorance that needs to be eliminated from the world of sports.

The stigma around student-athletes in sports, especially men, and their mental health is so toxic, so overtly ignored, that, according to Athletes for Hope, “with young adults, especially college athletes, the statistics are startling: 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Among that group, 30% seek help. But of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% do.”

The fight against mental illness among all people but especially student-athletes is going to be just that: a fight.

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard enough on the American people, people across the globe, without factoring in outside stressors. For Slippery Rock club hockey head coach Dave Grimm, aside from being unable to interact with the student-athletes that he has grown so close to during his four years as head coach, Grimm is a full-time parent to two small children and spends the rest of his time as a registered nurse to help fight the pandemic.

The dog days of the quarantine for Grimm, between working full-time at the hospital and juggling his two- and four-year-old sons, were a tough time. If he was not at work, Grimm said his boys really knew how to keep him busy. It was overtime most of the time.

When the weather was not ideal, he had to deal with two young kids literally bouncing off the walls.

The transition from just living a normal, pre-pandemic life (remember those days? yeah, me neither) to having to quarantine for weeks at a time was hard for the boys to understand.

“My four-year-old was playing hockey and all of the sudden, no more hockey practice, can’t even go to the playground,” Grimm said. “And he doesn’t understand, you try to explain to him, and he’s like, ‘dad, I have hockey tonight.’ It’s like, ‘no, bud. There are germs out there, so we can’t play hockey.'”

Okay, so the rinks in the United States are not open. Let us just go to Russia to play hockey, right? At least, that makes perfect sense to a four-year-old. It just does not quite work out that way. The two-year-old at least did not really get the situation at all.

Aside from entertaining the boys, Grimm spent the rest of his time working as a nurse, which is almost where this story of mental health awareness truly begins.

After graduating from Slippery Rock University in 2007 with a degree in exercise science, having played all four years on the SRU club hockey team, Grimm fulfilled his military obligation by serving on active duty as an officer in the US Army.

Grimm entered the Army as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were reaching their peaks, he said, and he truly became aware of the importance of mental health during that time.

“Being a nurse, we were getting a lot of folks back who had spent time in [the] war zone, and we were starting to see the PTSD, the depression and the anxiety,” Grimm said.

The men and women Grimm served with, in high-pressure war zones in the Middle East, were expected to show no signs of depression or anxiety; they were soldiers and acting as such was the mentality.

“When [my fellow soldiers’] mental health went, the physical health went with it,” Grimm said. “There didn’t seem to be enough resources to go around.”

The transition to civilian life for Grimm was hard because, although he looked forward to getting out, the bonds — or lack thereof — with his fellow servicemen and women led to a lot of downtime. It wasn’t hard for depression to set in.

“I had seen enough people struggle with [depression] that I was able to notice the changes in myself, notice the path I was on,” Grimm said.

While Grimm said he would not say he was not afraid to reach out for help, he knew he needed to talk to someone. The threat of spiraling was too much. He stressed how important it is to admit that you do not feel yourself, that you feel down.

“[Having mental health issues] does not mean you are mentally weak,” Grimm said. “It’s a physical thing, there’s a chemical imbalance; sometimes you need medication, sometimes you need therapy. But one way or the other, you do need help.”

Grimm said sometimes while dealing with mental health problems, there seems to be something missing. In Grimm’s case now, that rings louder than ever.

“Personally, I had two friends commit suicide not long after they had deployed,” Grimm said. “And you’d never know from [outward looks], they never mentioned they were having a problem; they never reached out and said they were struggling.”

In the wake of such tragedies, Grimm said many questions immediately spring to mind. But a lot of times, in these two cases, those people hide it so well, too well.

“My one friend, he was probably one of the most outgoing — he was definitely the funniest — guys I’ve ever been around,” Grimm said. “He was always light-hearted, always quick with a joke and everybody loved being around him. You would have never thought there was anything wrong.”

All too often, it is the ones you would never expect that you need to worry about.

In 2016, Grimm assumed an assistant coaching position with the Slippery Rock club hockey team, before ascending to head coach the next year. Grimm has served as the head coach since 2017, a decade since last playing a game for SRU.

Having been around the team for roughly five years now, after being away from the team for nearly a decade, Grimm has tried to provide a space to his student-athletes where they are able to come to him or assistant coaches if they do not feel comfortable talking to anyone else. That means topics like struggling in the classroom, feeling overextended in their lives or having a hard time with depression or anxiety.

“I was happy they were comfortable enough to come to me, and say, ‘Hey coach, I’m having a rough time with this, this and this,'” Grimm said. “That’s one of the big things we try to promote early on when we recruit student-athletes, when we get into the first couple weeks, it’s okay to not feel ok, and when you’re getting like that, our door is open 24/7.”

While that first interaction might be one-on-one, purely coach and student-athlete, Grimm said if someone needs further help, he will get them the resources that they need.

Part of the stigma, in Grimm’s eyes, lies in just playing a major contact sport — football or hockey — where everything is 100 miles an hour and physicality is demanded. Grimm said no one wants to be looked at as being “weak.”

“Just because you’re having some depression, some anxiety, it’s alright,” Grimm said. “A lot of people have those problems, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. We see it on the ice, we see it in the gym, we know you’re not weak. You’re just having a hard time.”

Sometimes, it is not just the fear of looking weak, it is the fear of having playing time slashed from speaking about how they’re feeling.

“We’ve had players in the past who didn’t want to say anything because they were afraid that — not while I was the head coach, while I was the assistant coach — it was going to impact their ice time and didn’t want to say anything,” Grimm said.

At the end of the day, Grimm and the rest of Rock hockey simply want their student-athletes to be successful. Physically, mentally and all-around healthy.

Grimm said that if you are struggling, please do not hide it. No one will think anything less of you for speaking out.

Outside of Slippery Rock, Grimm has gotten involved with the It’s About the Warrior Foundation, a non-profit which assists post 9/11 veterans. President Steve Monteleone is a Butler High School and Slippery Rock University graduate himself.

“[Monteleone] started it for veterans who served and want to stay active in the community and have that bond,” Grimm said. “But the main purpose is to help those who got out [of the service] with physical or mental issues.”

The Foundation offers many opportunities to its members, such as physical therapy with  Thomas Burnett and therapy/counseling through Sanderson Psychological. The IAWF also offers outreach through sports and outdoor/hunting programs.

“We do a charity outing once a year, it’s usually Memorial Day, and that’s to benefit the families of fallen police officers, raise money for scholarships for their kids and to help their families out and help their families get through tough times,” Grimm said. “That organization has done a lot, so it’s been nice to be involved in that.”

In response to the mental health crisis which has struck Slippery Rock too many times in the past couple of years, the university has upped its response with town hall meetings, commissions on mental health and new opportunities to reach out for help. Grimm believes that the social media presence has allowed students to see the opportunities better than before.

“If you do need help, and you want to seek help, you need to know how to find it,” Grimm said.

Rock hockey has gotten wonderful support from Robert Ogoreuc, the team’s academic advisor and a Slippery Rock University professor of physical education, and his wife. With student-athletes in majors across SRU’s offerings, there are many professors offering support, but Grimm said the impact of Ogoreuc has been substantial.

Like any coach, Grimm had hoped to be back on campus this fall, finally getting back on the ice with his team. Circumstances outside of his control forced a stoppage of all varsity and club sports at Slippery Rock this season, with many student-athletes unable to truly return to campus.

Without organized hockey this fall, you can bet on Grimm being there for his student-athletes — whether it is through Zoom or however he can be there.

If you have an interest in joining the It’s About the Warrior Foundation, you can check out its membership page here.¬†

Karl is a senior sport management major and communication minor entering his fifth semester on The Rocket staff. He will serve as the sports editor after previously serving as the assistant sports editor. During his time with The Rocket, he has covered every sport that SRU has to offer, and with the lack of sports this coming semester, he is looking forward to finding alternative ways to deliver sports news to the SRU community. After graduation, he hopes to work in the sports writing field.

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