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The New Normal How COVID-19 is impacting life on and off campus for NCAA members

Mental illness does not have a uniform cause, effect, impact or scenario.

Mental health is a major factor in the lives of people of all colors, genders, orientations, religions and athletic abilities. When you break the stigma surrounding mental health and begin discussing it openly, empathy generates a platform of unity and connection.

At Vermont, our two sport psychologists are familiar faces around the athletic facilities. My fellow student-athletes and I pass by Catamount Sports Psychology and Counseling as we head to practice or our study center. It is a common occurrence for a student-athlete to visit for support and for our teams to meet with Catamount Sports Psychology.

For years, Vermont and the America East Conference have proudly worked to break the stigma surrounding mental illness, encouraging discussion of the mental health struggles so many collegiate athletes face. The message the America East Conference and Vermont have instilled: Your mental health matters.

That message has remained a constant during this new normal.

I am proud to see my university and conference persevere through this challenging time and continue to discuss mental health and create virtual connections in light of COVID-19.

As student-athletes, we are no stranger to obstacles and adversity. Intense practices and high-demanding competitions are presumed. We thrive under pressure. We work collectively to achieve our goals. On and off the field, our foundation is grit and perseverance, even in light of a global pandemic.

On March 12, 2020, the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships and, with that, suspended the identity, craft, routine, and support system of nearly 500,000 student-athletes.

This move was nearly incomprehensible, mainly because it was unprecedented.

As a member of the Division I National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, I have the privilege of intimately witnessing the NCAA’s decision-making process, and I commend the NCAA for its leadership in prioritizing the health of student-athletes and our communities.

In the aftermath of the decision, as emotions settled and the country followed in the footsteps of collegiate athletics, student-athletes rose to the occasion. Student-athletes took adversity in stride, building on our foundation of grit and perseverance to mitigate the extreme adversity our world is facing.

The America East Conference SAAC created a social media campaign, #BetterTo9ether Beyond Sport, to highlight the league’s mental health initiative and the challenges student-athletes currently face while scattered around the globe. The #BetterTo9gether initiative dates back to November 2018, when it was created by the American East Conference and its SAAC members as a way to prioritize mental health across the conference through dialogue, activities and awareness.

Due to the impact of COVID-19, the conference and SAAC saw a need to take this initiative to the next level.

As part of that effort, the conference recently debuted #AEConnects, a social media engagement initiative that aims to educate, engage and entertain during this time of uncertainty to help fill the void without athletic events. In addition to #AEConnects, the conference also continued its campaign, #AEVoices, recognizing the importance of connecting mental health discussion as student-athletes and as people.

The America East SAAC chose to view this time as an opportunity to advocate for mental wellness from a wholistic-person standpoint, finding positivity and virtual connection in a time of extreme adversity.

Through the #BetterTo9ether-Beyond Sport campaign, America East Conference student-athletes took to social media to demonstrate how they are prioritizing their self-care and mental health while collegiate athletics is on hold. Soon, student-athletes were showcasing their unique identities and hobbies and nominating peers, effectively discussing mental health and building connections. Two Vermont student-athletes created “Flatten the Curve,”a clothing-brand and virtual run-a-thon, and have successfully connected over 500 participants to join their movement.

From #AEConnects, current student-athletes, alumni, coaches, and administrators have come together to create connection. The America East Conference continues to provide members of the conference a platform to share their mental health story through #AEVoices. At Vermont and the America East Conference, we know we are #BetterTo9ether. We know that grit, perseverance and, most importantly, discussion and connection, is a vital component of mental health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique circumstances, and those circumstances have been met with unique efforts. The leaders at Vermont, the America East Conference and its member universities recognize the vital need to continue prioritizing mental health and that breaking the stigma starts with discussion and connection.

Knowing you are not alone in your struggle and that it is OK to feel and discuss however you are feeling is essential for student-athletes as athletes and as people.

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