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Athletes promote mental health awareness at GameFACES

Stanford’s student-athletes are no strangers to pressure: They face the academic stressors tied to education at an elite institution and the immense pressures involved with competing at the highest levels in collegiate athletics. The pressure underscores why it’s important to support athlete’s mental health and wellbeing — a task taken up on on Tuesday evening by the seventh annual GameFACES event.

Organized by Stanford Athletics to recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, GameFACES brought student-athletes to Meyer Green to celebrate the community’s strength and foster conversation around unique challenges faced by student-athletes. Organizers created spaces to delve into shared experiences and

GameFACES hosted a panel with seven students from different sports who shared personal stories that described resilience and experiences overcoming adversities associated with mental health issues. The stories were received by supportive teammates and friends and representatives from Stanford Sport Psychology, who shared additional information and resources with interested student-athletes. 

Senior and lightweight rower Mikayla Chen opened the evening by speaking about her first years on the Farm, where she worked to convince the University to reinstate the rowing team, while simultaneously confronting her parents’ divorce. 

“I had to be the student-athlete I was recruited to be and try to reinstate the team, while also basically being the mom of the family from 3,000 miles away,” Chen said. 

Others told stories about deep personal losses and how it affected performance both on and off the field. Redshirt sophomore forward Andrea Kitahata on the women’s soccer team shared how she was affected by the passing of Katie Meyer, her friend and teammate.

“Working through the grief of losing someone who was built into my daily routine and suddenly disappeared took everything out of me,” Kitahata said.

She initially wanted to supress her emotions: “Feeling the pressure of playing time, starting spots, and my career, I wanted nothing more than to push my emotions down and be on the field.”

But it was only several months later that she realized how deeply she was affected. “As an athlete you’re taught to muscle through pain. It took me six months to realize that this pain was actually an indicator that I was not on the right track,” Kitahata said.

Student-athletes also shared stories of perseverance and overcoming immense obstacles. 

For Chen and senior thrower Brandy Atuatasi, the healing journey was centered around their faith, especially as he navigated losing multiple family members. 

“God has given them eternal life, and they’ll always be a part of me,” Atuatasi said. “They’re a source of my strength, and I’ll forever carry on their legacies.”

Some also described the critical role mental health resources played in personal battles. Stanford sports counseling helped senior diver Hunter Hollenbeck find a new sense of purpose.

“After spending 6 months in a life I did not want to live, my task was to figure out what life I did want after all of this,” Hollenbeck said. “In those sessions [with Stanford Sport Psychology], I redefined who Hunter Hollenbeck was, is, and wants to be.”

For student-athletes, Stanford Sports Psychology is one of the primary resources offering mental health services and resources. The team of psychologists provide free individualized counseling for varsity athletes on any issue regarding academics, athletics or the athlete’s personal lives. 

Junior driver Sophia Sanders on the women’s water polo team also credited mental health resources in helping her understand and work through depression. 

“Origins are difficult to untangle, but I know the work I did untying all those mental knots in therapy is the number one reason why I am the person I am today,” Sanders said. 

Others illustrated how coming out the other side has impacted their lives for the better. Describing a triumphant return to her sport after lengthy treatment for a nerve condition and the passing of her father, fifth-year rower Regan McDonnell said, “If I can do this, if I can come back from getting 2 ribs removed and not rowing for 16 months to race in an NCAA boat, I can do anything.” 

Senior rower Nick Woehrle described how he also hoped to help others, especially following his experiences with anorexia. “I feel now that sharing my story has become part of my story, that part of my healing process is coupled with the possibility of helping others with their own,” Woehrle said. 

For several student-athletes, events like GameFACES were integral to sparking conversations and creating a supportive community to navigate mental health issues. 

“It’s great that, apart from the resources that we have as athletes to help ourselves improve mental health, we can also share in a wider community setting,” said former swimmer Neel Roy in an interview with The Daily. 

Events like GameFACES are integral to allow student-athletes to feel less isolated and ensure that “everyone understands that they’re not the only ones going through what they’re going through, and everyone’s struggling in their own way,” Roy said.

While participants stressed this was only a first to step work to support the mental well-being of all student-athletes, GameFACES provided a positive opportunity to the Stanford athletics community to seek resources, share stories and provide support to others.

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