Morgan’s Message and The Hidden Opponent advocate for student-athlete mental health at AU
AU athletes raise awareness and fight for mental health support
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2023 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Lizzie De Guzman was just a freshman on the American University lacrosse team when she sustained an injury that is a critical blow to many athletes: an ACL tear. She suffered the injury during the abbreviated season in 2021. Not returning to play until late in the 2022 season, her mental health took a massive hit during this time off.
“It’s just been so normalized in the culture of athletics, just like putting your head down, being strong, like not opening up,” De Guzman said.
After seeing friends and athletes at other schools post about the student-athlete mental health advocacy organization Morgan’s Message, De Guzman got involved in the organization.
Morgan’s Message is named for Morgan Rodgers, who played lacrosse at Duke University and died by suicide after struggling mentally with not being able to play lacrosse due to a major knee injury. The organization, which was founded in 2020, was started by Rodgers’ mother to encourage other athletes in her situation to seek support and to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health issues in athletics.
Morgan’s Message works with another group called The Hidden Opponent, which was founded by Victoria Garrick. Garrick is a former University of Southern California volleyball player, who has been open about her own struggles with depression. Her organization is named for a TedTalk she gave in 2017.
De Guzman, now a junior on the lacrosse team, works alongside women’s soccer sophomore Olivia Simmons and freshman field hockey player Annie Shaw as Morgan’s Message ambassadors at AU. Additionally, they work with sophomore soccer player Jordan Mahony and senior runner Ana Keene who represent The Hidden Opponent.
The issue of student-athlete mental health is close to home for Simmons. Rodgers went to her high school, and Simmons has experienced her own mental health struggles. She transferred to American from Purdue because of mental health issues, which eventually motivated her to start Morgan’s Message at AU, Simmons said.
The organization is broadly focused on fighting the stigma around talking about mental health and pushing student-athletes to seek help when they need it. More specifically, they want to work on creating spaces for student-athletes of color to talk about their own unique issues and encouraging more male students to participate.
The organization’s biggest concrete priority is having AU athletics hire a sports psychologist.
“Bring in a sports psychologist. It needs to happen,” Simmons said. “That is a top priority because a lot of bigger schools have that and have had that for a while.”
Since The Eagle interviewed Simmons on Jan. 30, AU has made progress towards hiring a sports psychologist. Every other Patriot League school currently has at least one person listed as a sports psychologist, according to their respective websites. AU had been working on hiring a sports psychologist for a while, but has never had one full time. Many other Patriot League schools have employed multiple sports psychologists for a number of years, according to their websites.
“The athletics department is in the process of hiring a Sports Clinician who will work out of the University Counseling Center but focus solely on our student-athlete population. This position was created in response to hearing from our student-athletes and staff that it was something they felt would enhance their experience at American,” associate athletic director of student-athlete well-being Katie Benoit wrote in an email to The Eagle.
“I didn’t even know what a sports psychologist was. I knew therapy was a thing but it never crossed my mind until I got to college and started seeing a regular therapist and a sports psychologist,” De Guzman said.
Because AU doesn’t have one yet, De Guzman sought out and paid for an outside sports psychologist on her own. “It’s now just crazy to me that every school doesn’t have that resource because of how difficult college athletics is, no matter what level you’re at.”
Morgan’s Message and The Hidden Opponent worked together to sponsor a Mental Health Dedication game during the April 12 lacrosse game against Navy this season. They encouraged unity between student-athletes at different schools by standing together in matching t-shirts and showing that the issue of mental health is bigger than the stat sheet or scoreboard.
“I know a lot of people don’t want to talk about their mental health. And that’s what ends them to start like going down that negative tunnel. A lot of younger student-athletes are taught to push through everything — like push through pain, push through physical injury. But mental injuries are not something that you should push through and that way, it’s better to get help,” Simmons said.