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Out to squash stigma, Clemson invests in athletes' mental health

Post & Courier - 7/3/2018

CLEMSON - At some point this month, Dabo Swinney will put down his play-calling sheets and head to a meeting at Clemson that has nothing to do with football fundamentals. There will be no talk of strategy, no game prep, no talk of behemoth expectations that have become the annual norm for his program.

Brent Venables, Clemson's defensive coordinator, will attend this meeting, too. So will co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, along with any support staff member and any coach in any capacity from the football program.

Between now and May, every staff member from every athletic team at Clemson will also attend a similar meeting.

The purpose of said meetings: mental health.

According to a study from the University of Michigan, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students. Annually, 19 million adults in the United States suffer from one form of depression or another.

As a university, Clemson has made it its mission to equip its students with the best possible resources when it comes to mental health and squashing the all-too-dangerous stigma of asking for help. That applies to the athletic department and its student athletes, too, which is why by the end of the month, Swinney and his entire staff will have a greater understanding of steps to take if potential red flags arise within their program.

"Tigers Together" is a initiative on campus that is training university staff members and professors specifically about suicide warning signs and prevention.

"That's something we're going to start," said Natalie Honnen, Clemson's associate athletic director for student-athlete services and performance. "We're going to have all of our coaches trained to understand more of those warning signs. What do you do? What's the referral process? How do you have that conversation?

"We feel like that's going to be key for our coaches to break that stigma from their end to say, 'Hey, you talked to me about this, let's get you someone (to help). This is how we have this conversation, this is who I can refer you to.' "

As it stands now, there is one clinical psychologist - Dr. Bailey Nevels - whose full-time job is to work only with Clemson's student-athletes. Clemson is looking to add more staff members to join her and is hoping to bring in a diverse range of doctors so that each student can feel personally connected to someone.

Nevels spends three days a week in the university's Redfern Health Center and the other two in Clemson's Nieri Academic Center, thus giving the athletes she serves a choice of where they feel more comfortable meeting her when they need help.

Honnen, who works closely with Nevels, explained that there are several ways in which a student athlete can request those professional services. If the student feels like he or she is struggling, getting help could be as simple as making an appointment with Nevels on his or her own. But there could also be instances where a student stayed quiet, yet a coach noticed something was off - something this training will ultimately help coaches with.

In those instances, a coach could reach out about an athlete to Honnen, who could then facilitate a meeting with Nevels to address that specific case. Honnen said the red flags in that instance can vary.

"Lack of sleep. Different behaviors. If they're usually upbeat and kind of seem a little bit down lately (that is a sign). A lot of times when performance starts going down, you'll kind of see the student struggling in the classroom at times," she said, adding that the passing of a loved one or a major life change could be a red flag, as well. "Those are kind of some areas where our coaches, they'll kind of refer to that point and sometimes it's really clear as a student says, 'Hey, I need some help. Who can I connect with to go from there?' "

Nevels has been on staff since 2014 working with student athletes, and the mental health center really started to take shape about five years ago, Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said. But Radakovich has seen athletes using the center more and more as of late, which ultimately is a good thing.

As Jennifer Goree, Clemson's Director of Healthy Campus said, "suicide is preventable."

"It is a preventable death," she emphasized.

That's what Clemson is hoping it can share with its students and athletes. And that's why the athletic department has been so hands on.

"It's incredibly important now for all student athletes," Radakovich said. "It has grown because the need has grown."


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