Monday, February 26, 2024

In the Cards: Morgan’s Message reaches Plattsburgh

By Collin Bolebruch

The stigma surrounding mental health has lifted its veil over the last few years. Media has more openly discussed mental health awareness, public figures are more likely to share their stories and more Americans than ever before are experiencing mental health conditions. Though there are now more mental health resources than ever, there is still a crisis among student athletes.

In 2019, former Duke lacrosse player Morgan Rodgers committed suicide. According to the Morgan’s Message website, Rodgers developed high levels of anxiety in 2014 while being recruited by Division I women’s lacrosse programs during her senior year of high school. Rodgers joined 30% of women’s college athletes and 25% of men in having anxiety, as reported by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). 

In January 2017, weeks before her Blue Devil season began, Rodgers suffered a significant leg injury. She missed the entire season, received surgery and rehabilitated her leg for a calendar year. The injury was a blow to her confidence.

Being away from the team and other life factors were devastating to her anxiety and developing depression. Rodgers did not reveal her worsening condition to loved ones. According to the ACSM, just 10% of college athletes with mental health conditions see professionals.

After her death, Rodgers’ family founded a non-profit called Morgan’s Message, dedicated to bringing awareness to athletes’ mental health with the hope to elevate it to the same importance of physical health. Morgan’s Message has since become a platform for athletes to tell their stories.

Rodgers is not alone in her experience. During the 2022 spring season, five NCAA athletes committed suicide, including Stanford goalkeeper Katie Meyer.

Rachel LaMar, Plattsburgh lacrosse player and former soccer player, was especially “struck” by Meyer’s death. Her teammates shared that feeling. Around that time, LaMar discovered Morgan’s Message on social media, watching videos of athletes telling their mental health stories.

LaMar found the content encouraging, believing that vocalizing stigmatic experiences would make it easier for more athletes to come out about their struggles.

“We have nothing like that at Plattsburgh,” LaMar said. “We have no opportunities to do that with each other at Plattsburgh. We just thought that that needed to change or something bad was going to happen.”

Caitlin Nash, LaMar’s lacrosse teammate, remembered hearing about Meyer’s death on the team bus. LaMar spread the idea of founding a Morgan’s Message chapter at Plattsburgh to her teammates and everyone was “really supportive.” That’s when she took action.

To begin the process of founding a Morgan’s Message chapter at Plattsburgh, LaMar had to go through both Morgan’s Message and SUNY Plattsburgh.

LaMar was approved to become an official Morgan’s Message ambassador through an application process. She received training and resources and is now an extension of the organization.

Now certified by Morgan’s Message, LaMar had to establish club status with the school. One of the first steps was to find a staff member who would become the club’s adviser.

Photos provided by Rachel LaMar

LaMar originally approached Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator Cheryl Cole with the idea. Cole, former head coach of the women’s basketball team for 24 years, has a long history with the mental side of sports.

“[If] you aren’t taking care of your mental health, you’re not going to be able to perform physically, athletically or academically,” Cole said. “If you roll your ankle or jam your finger, you go immediately to the trainer and there’s no stigma to it, it’s just what you do. You rehab and you get your butt back as quick as you can back in with your team. But if you’re struggling mentally, it has been in the past, and still to some degree, taboo to talk about or taboo to realize, ‘I need some extra help.’”

Cole was fully supportive of LaMar’s goals and directed her to Kelsea Healis, the head coach of the women’s volleyball team, who “jumped” on the opportunity. Healis emphasizes mental health during checks with her athletes.

“I think there’s a higher level of expectation when you are involved in athletics, because you have more standards, more people looking at you, more things to prove and you have more people to answer to,” Healis said. “When you’re on a team, you have to physically perform and I think people forget the mental side of that.”

LaMar had never been a member of a club on campus before and now she was starting one. She described the process as “long,” including getting in contact with the Student Association, getting signatures from SA members, writing articles for the club, assigning officers and speaking in front of the SA board. After a favorable vote from the board, the Plattsburgh chapter of Morgan’s Message was founded in the fall 2022 semester.

Naturally, LaMar took the helm as the potential new club’s president, recruiting Nash as Morgan’s Message’s secretary, former soccer teammate Amanda Cohen as vice president and volleyball player Lily White as treasurer.

Nash takes notes at the meetings, keeping track of ideas, events to be organized or conversations that were had. She wants to make sure the Plattsburgh chapter can help give students both the platform and comfort to have a voice. Nash said SUNY Plattsburgh should provide a specialized sports psychologist.

“I’ve seen a lot of people, I’ve seen some of my friends, some of my competitors just struggle with their mental health. Having seen that, just, it hurts. It hurts,” Nash said. “You don’t want to see someone struggling.”

Cohen and LaMar work closely, sharing responsibilities. Cohen said that despite athletes’ tough image, mental health still affects them. She hopes the club can dispel the uncomfortable nature of conversations about the topic, creating a safe environment.

White, LaMar’s roommate, joined with the anticipation that her involvement in the Student Athlete Advisory Committee would help spread word of the club. Her responsibilities include fundraising and helping to plan events.

White believes athletes put mental health on the backburner once they accomplish playing the sport at the college level. She thinks the club can surface difficult conversations by creating a safe space for Cardinals to share personal experiences.

As president, LaMar runs the club’s monthly meetings. Morgan’s Message sends her resources, slideshows and other content to present to the club members, touching on topics like self-harm and eating disorders. LaMar also organizes events, like Morgan’s Message dedication games, with the ultimate goal of reaching student athletes.

Photos provided by Rachel LaMar

“I think that it’s going to make for the athlete community to feel more safe with each other and talking to each other. It’s going to bring everyone together a lot more,” LaMar said. “It would be a good place for everyone to come together and realize that we are all going through the same thing whether or not we know it. It’s good to have those people around us to feel less alone.”

Morgan’s Message hosted its first event, coordinating with the women’s hockey team to promote its cause during a Feb. 3 game against the Cortland Red Dragons. Morgan’s Message was in the lobby of the Field House to discuss the club with attendees. Before the game, it was announced the game was dedicated to the cause and a moment of silence was held. 

The Cardinals wore ribbons to the rink and a Morgan’s Message sticker on its helmets that remained there for the rest of the season. Sara Krauseneck, senior and team captain, values the importance of mental health and helps to maintain a positive environment within the program.

Photos provided by Rachel LaMar

“We all try to support each other. You can tell sometimes if someone’s having a bad day, and you don’t even really need to ask what’s going on, but just say, ‘Hey, we’re here for you,’” Krauseneck said. “Something like that, just a little boost to maybe help someone if they’re down. Stuff like that goes a long way.”

Krauseneck’s teammate Mae Olshansky is a member of Morgan’s Message and attends the meetings. She heard about the club “through the grapevine” of women’s sports and thought having open conversations about mental health would be interesting.

Olshansky is from Chicago, but started attending prep school in New England during her high school years. She said the feeling of having to grow up quickly and being away from home helped her realize the significance of mental health.

Olshansky emphasized the importance of having a trusting and comfortable environment to facilitate personal conversations, where no one feels pressured. She’s glad to be able to use her platform as a women’s hockey player to represent Morgan’s Message’s cause to the Plattsburgh community outside of the school.

White’s teammate Kyleigh Ganz is also a member. Ganz joined as a friend of White, knowing she wanted to bring attention to an “underappreciated” factor in athletics. Like many other athletes, Ganz pointed to COVID-19 as a wake-up call in regards to mental health.

“My teammates around me struggle, and knowing that there was pretty much nothing I could do at that moment in time just made me realize how important it is in general,” Ganz said. “Now I notice it way more, like if I see teammates struggling, I can pick up on those signs a little bit earlier.”

Morgan’s Message hosts its next dedication game in collaboration with the women’s lacrosse team, as the Cardinals host the Geneseo Knights Saturday, April 1. The ceremony will be similar to women’s hockey’s, but it will feature LaMar and Nash on the field.

“I would really like to have representation from all the teams because I think the stuff that we’re going to be doing and talking about is going to be very important to take back to all of our teammates and our coaches in order for it to actually make an impact,” LaMar said. “The ultimate goal is just to have a more tight-knit kind of community and just make sure everyone feels comfortable with themselves and with each other and making sure that mental health isn’t something that we’re scared to talk about.”

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