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Gov. Moore signs bill mandating mental health training for coaches

It’s a right of passage into Mike Locksley’s Maryland football program to participate in the ‘3 H’s’ meeting. Newcomers stand before teammates, coaches and staff to share about their hero, a highlight of their life and a hardship. It’s one of a few crucial Terps mental health touchpoints.

Head coach always goes first. By Locksley opening his heart, he’s creating a space for shared vulnerability where others can see, “Coach has got some things he’s really proud of,” he said, “but also, he’s faced some tough times.”

Personal tragedy forged Locksley’s path intertwining mental health with his football-filled life. Which is why he and his program are in favor of recently passed legislation that prioritizes steps to address the worsening mental health in student-athletes.

Senate Bill 165, which was signed into law by Gov. Wes Moore on Thursday, mandates all Maryland public high school and college institutions provide training for participating coaches to recognize indicators of mental illness and behavioral distress in students. That includes signs of depression, trauma, violence, youth suicide and substance abuse.

The bill, which passed with bipartisan support, takes effect July 1. Maryland follows Ohio as the second state to pass similar legislation for high school coaches but is first to include public universities.

Locksley’s third H, his tragedy, is when he shares that his son, Meiko, was shot and killed in 2017. Meiko was 25, later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which can reveal itself through bipolar or depressive episodes. Burned into Mike’s memory is the desolate look he saw in his once-buoyant son.

“It’s almost like a glassy-eyed stare,” he said. “Almost like you can see their soul through their eyes; which is what triggered me. Seeing that look in his eyes, I’ve seen that look before in players that I’ve coached in the past. At the time, I wasn’t trained. Had no idea what it meant. I saw that stare in a number of players that have dealt with mental health issues that aren’t familiar with it. It was almost eerie for me to see it. Like, why have I seen this before?”

Locksley and his staff have not yet taken formal training. But mental health is an ongoing conversation in College Park, starting from their 3 H’s introduction and persisting with Thursday all-staff meetings –– a scheduled space to take the pulse of the team.

Not every program is so active on the matter.

“Coaches have told us that they feel ill-equipped to deal with some of the things they see on the field, on the court or in the locker rooms,” the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, Sen. Shelly Hettleman, told The Baltimore Sun. “This will be a mechanism to get them better training on how to connect their players with services they need.”

April 27, 2024: University of Maryland football, Red vs White teams. Terps head coach Mike Locksley. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)
Maryland football coach Mike Locksley is a proponent of a recently passed bill require mental health awareness training for high school and college coaches. Locksley already has initiatives within his program to help any mental health issues with his players. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)

Hettleman previously helped pass the Jordan McNair Act, honoring the late Maryland football player and Randallstown native. The 2019 bill requires college programs to implement emergency-action plans for heat-related illnesses. Hettleman sees this legislation as another piece of that infrastructure, championing student-athlete health.

The frequency and breadth of SB165’s training is reliant on a collective effort from Maryland’s Department of Health, Higher Education Commission, county boards of education and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Training could include red flags to look for, appropriate questions to ask, or how to create a safe space for vulnerable dialogue.

Columbia-based sports psychologist Dan Zimet told The Sun last year ease of utilization would be a determining factor for the bill’s success.

“Coaches already have so much that they do,” Zimet said. Current state law requires training in emergency action plans, seizure plans and operation of automatic external defibrillators.

“I think it’s important,” Zimet said, “for coaches to know they’re not expected to provide any treatment. They’re not expected to sit in on counseling sessions or to know what kind of doctor this person might need.”

A 2022 study by the Aspen Institute surveying more than 10,000 coaches found that 18% of youth coaches feel highly confident in their ability to link athletes to mental health resources and 67% want more education on the subject. Similarly, more than 80% of NCAA coaches across all three divisions reported spending more time discussing mental health since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Johns Hopkins senior scientist Laura Murray said it’s not uncommon coaches are initially hesitant to address mental health when, to them, it’s taboo or just not in their wheelhouse. In her experience, those folks often leave referral-style trainings more comfortable on approaching the matter.

Coaches aren’t always equipped to help student-athletes in a mental health crisis. A Maryland bill hopes to change that.

Second push success

A simple proposition for this bill was brought forward in June 2022 by a former Baltimore City student-athlete dedicated to mental health advocacy. Marcus Alston had zero legislative experience. What he did have was a burning desire to make a difference.

By the 2023 legislative session, he had garnered the backing of one sponsor: Del. Dalya Attar, a Democrat from Baltimore City. But a late start hindered the bill’s progress. It passed favorably through the House with amendments omitting language specifying “first-aid” training. By then, there was little time left for discourse in the Senate.

Alston proactively pre- and cross-filed in both chambers this time around. Again, it passed unanimously out of the House. The Senate made merely a technical amendment striking “mainstream” from the bill’s description of athletic programs before a 45-0 vote.

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