Student-Athletes Lead The Way: How The Next Generation Is Leading The Discussion On Mental Health

For the third time this college men’s basketball season, a story regarding mental health made its way to the forefront of the sport. This time, it was Kentucky sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans leaving the team to focus on his mental health. You can read about the details on this espn.com piece, but the short version is that he told head coach John Calipari that he was “in a bad way” and needed to temporarily step away from the team.

Earlier this season, heralded Ohio State freshmen D.J. Carton did the same. Carton released a statement explaining his reasoning in depth, writing, “I’ve been suffering with mental health issues for a couple years. I have been through a lot. I’m disappointed to say I’m not 100% right now.” Toward the end of his note posted to Twitter, he wrote something incredibly insightful:

“If you’re going through mental health issues, I have learned through this that you are loved and valued.”

These two stories hint at a couple of trends seen today throughout the country. First, and most concerning, is that our young people are dealing with so much daily stress that it’s wearing them down mentally. Second, and much more encouraging, is that they are showing others that it’s okay to not only talk about these issues, it’s important to prioritize mental health over other things. That message is starting to make its way into the mainstream, yet there is a long way to go to de-stigmatize mental health issues.

The third story mentioned above is a tragedy. Zachary Winston, younger brother of Michigan State senior guard Cassius Winston, committed suicide on November 19, 2019. The shockwave through the college basketball world is still being felt even now. For Cassius, his senior season has been marked by inconsistent play as he, no doubt, still figures out how to continue living life without his beloved younger brother. The fact he has even been playing is a testament to his strength and resolve.

One way to look at these three stories is by focusing on just how much pressure has been placed on these young men. From a young age, the highest of expectations are tagged to these kids. The pressure to live up to such lofty expectations is something most people won’t be able to fully understand. On the other hand, it’s important to note that mental health issues do not discriminate. These young men are supremely talented, famous from a young age. It might be tempting to think they shouldn’t have a care in the world. However, poor mental health can and will affect everyone, regardless of talent, success, fame, or fortune.

The encouraging aspect of these stories is that in each case, mental illness and mental health has been spoken about in such a way as to accelerate the conversation. Open discussions about mental health are beginning to have an affect on the next generation, as evidenced by Ashton Hagans and D.J. Carton having the courage to admit their need for help and support.

The hope is that some day, talking openly about our mental health will no longer be seen as a courageous act. Instead, it simply becomes the new normal. For now, our society owes a debt of gratitude to these young men for their willingness to lead by example. Let us learn from them.

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