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Shifting Sports Culture

Pirate Athletes Work to Destigmatize Mental Health

Kylee Walker '23 remembers feeling pressure to appear mentally tough as a triple-sport varsity athlete in high school. Privately, Walker was struggling with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.

"I would have to pretend that I was OK at my practices or games when all I wanted to do was focus on my mental health," Walker says. "When I came to college, I realized I am not alone in this."

Now a lacrosse captain and a psychology major at Whitworth, Walker is among a number of Pirate student-athletes who are working to eliminate the stigma of mental health in sports. The pressure within sports culture to appear mentally tough often prevents athletes from discussing or seeking help for mental health concerns.

Two seasons ago, Walker initiated an annual "Mental Health Matters Week" for the lacrosse team that included a daily discussion in the locker room.

"I shared about my mental health journey and how it doesn't define me but is a crucial part of my life that I still deal with every day," Walker says. "It led to a really good week of sharing, listening and being vulnerable"

Walker has since become an ambassador for Morgan's Message, a fast-growing advocacy organization that seeks to destigmatize mental health. She hosts tribute games for Whitworth teams to raise funds for Morgan's Message and leads monthly meetings on mental health that are open to all athletes.

"I give a presentation at the meetings, and the rest of the time is used for talking within a safe space," Walker says. Softball player Jessica Rusconi '24 is another advocate on campus. Last fall, Rusconi founded a Whitworth chapter of The Hidden Opponent, a mental-health advocacy group. Cheer squad member Samie Schaffer '24 and baseball player Dylan Bishop '23 serve as officers on the chapter's executive team.

"We're hoping to create awareness that mental health is something that should be prioritized for all people, including athletes," Rusconi says. "We're all human before we're students, athletes or whatever other roles we fill."

Walker is heartened by the appreciation students express regarding her efforts, and she is encouraged that the stigma within sports culture appears to be lessening. "Change is going to be a slow process and won't ever be easy," she says, "but I do think a shift is happening."

This story appears in the spring 2022 issue of Whitworth Today magazine.



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