Tech athletics ahead of game when it comes to mental health care

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Billy Joel. Oprah Winfrey. Martin Luther King Jr. Elton John. Ken Griffey Jr.

Given his relative youth, Austin Cannon would not seem to have a lot in common with such a distinguished group of immensely successful people. Yet like all these celebrities, the backup right guard on Virginia Tech’s football team squared off in a battle against depression and anxiety – and attempted to take his own life to win.

Fortunately, Cannon survived, and these days, he continues to take steps toward prosperity, with trained professionals in the sports medicine and sport psychology areas of the Virginia Tech Athletics Department helping and guiding him along the way.

Cannon’s backstory resembles those of many others heard by Dr. Gary Bennett, the department’s full-time sport psychologist, and Dr. Paul Knackstedt, who splits his time between the athletics department and the Cook Counseling Center on Tech’s campus. Cannon struggled with a series of devastating events in his life within a relatively short period of time – his grandmother’s passing, his father’s cancer diagnosis, and a relationship breakup – and a concussion suffered in a football practice on Aug. 9, 2016 put him over the top.

While sitting in his dorm room later that evening, he grabbed a knife out of a drawer, and the Mechanicsville, Virginia product stuck it in his leg. Blood poured forth, as Cannon sat there. Fortunately, one of the football team trainers already was on the way to the dorm room to check on Cannon, and that probably led to the saving of his life.

“I think the concussion kind of topped it off,” Cannon said. “It was the last straw. I immediately regretted doing it. I thought it was selfish of me to do what I did.”

Tech’s sports medicine staff, along with rescue personnel on campus, ultimately stabilized the leg, and Cannon then spent a week at New Horizons Crisis Stabilization in Radford, Virginia for a week of treatment to get to the root of his issues. Head coach Justin Fuente, offensive line coach Vance Vice and team chaplain Dave Gittings visited him, and Danielle Bartelstein, the senior director for football operations, stopped by every day.

Today, Cannon meets regularly with Bennett as part of his ongoing recovery. He is one of an ever-growing number of Tech student-athletes using the resources available within the little known, but extremely important Tech sport psychology office.

In the mid-1990s, the Tech athletics department became one of the first in the country to bring a sport psychologist onboard to work with student-athletes. To review incidents involving poor student-athlete behavior at the time, then-university president Dr. Paul Torgersen formed a committee, and one of the recommendations was to have a psychologist available. Thus, Bennett, who was working at the Cook Counseling Center then, became the liaison between the center and the athletics department.

Bennett later moved into a part-time role, splitting time between Cook and the athletics department, and then in 2007, he became the first full-time sport psychologist within an athletics department in the ACC, with an office inside the Merryman Athletics Center.

Today, numerous schools are trying to emulate Tech’s model, wanting to protect student-athletes in light of the epidemic of mental health issues occurring within the United States.

“The numbers increase every year, and there is a huge push by the NCAA to have resources available for student-athletes who are having mental health issues,” Bennett said. “We were one of the first schools to have a position in house, but I think now about 10 of the ACC schools have similar positions, and nationwide, the number continues to increase.”

In 2016, Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, outlined nine strategic health-related priorities for the NCAA, and mental health was one of those. He put forth a series of guidelines, including the calling for financial support for sport psychologists, a physical location for their offices within athletics departments, and updated screenings and procedures for at-risk student-athletes, among others.

Fortunately, the Virginia Tech Athletics Department has been ahead of the game. Way ahead.

Bennett, Knackstedt and the sports medicine staff members have taken a team approach, implementing programs and educating Tech’s student-athletes. More importantly, though, Bennett and Knackstedt serve as counselors, inviting student-athletes to come to their offices at the Merryman Athletics Center – havens for student-athletes in dark places.

Their own backgrounds give them additional credibility, as both Bennett and Knackstedt were student-athletes at their respective colleges. Both played baseball, with Bennett at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky and Knackstedt at William & Mary. They help Tech’s student-athletes cope with any number of issues over the course of a given year, including those ranging from ADD/ADHD (attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to anxiety and stress to severe depression to simply wanting to perform better in their respective sports.

Student-athletes, more than any other constituency on a campus, are at risk of mental health problems. Their daily schedules include combinations of classes, weight-lifting sessions, film sessions, practices, study halls and homework, leaving them little time to decompress or to take care of all their responsibilities.

“The biggest thing that I see is anxiety or stress,” Bennett said. “They say that their lives are so stressful, and I don't know that people outside of here would appreciate what they have to go through, but to me, it’s [being a student-athlete] like having two full-time jobs.

“Depression is probably the second. Every year, we have a handful of student-athletes that we have to hospitalize because they’re so depressed that they’re having thoughts of hurting themselves. You don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have this resource available, but we’ve seen what would have happened at other schools that don't have a psychologist available. I think too often that’s the impetus for an athletics department to start a program – after something tragic has happened.”

Preventing those tragedies from occurring, or at least reducing the risk, requires student-athletes to seek help, and therein lays the biggest challenge for Bennett, Knackstedt and the entire athletics department. Student-athletes fear being seen as weak, or soft, especially among their teammates and coaches. So they often keep things bottled up, which can lead to destructive consequences.

M.J. Ulrich knows all about this struggle. A member of the Tech women’s swimming and diving team and the current president of Tech’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), Ulrich struggled with the adjustment to college life as a freshman in 2014. She also waged a battle within herself as to whether to seek help, as she fell into depression.

Ultimately, the good side won. She decided to visit with Bennett, and he counseled her and worked with Tech’s sports medicine staff members on the proper medication for her depression. They made sure she did not violate any NCAA drug policy rules, all the while protecting her privacy.

“In the eyes of society, you never want to admit that you have a problem or need help, especially as a student-athlete because you want to be seen as that strong figure and that role model for people,” Ulrich said. “You don’t want it to ruin your image and what people might think of you. The last thing I wanted people to think was that I was needy or wasn’t able to support myself, therefore, unable to support my teammates.

“That was the most difficult part – admitting to myself that I had a problem. Once I overcame that, it’s been much better and very easy to manage.”

The good news is that more student-athletes are conquering those fears. The numbers say so.

In Bennett’s first year in a part-time role within the athletics department, he saw approximately 30-40 student-athletes. This past year, he and Knackstedt teamed to see 282. That number represents roughly half of the student-athlete population at Tech.

Some probably view that number as disturbing. Yet the sport psychologists view it differently.

“At the end of the day, Dr. Bennett and I see that as a good thing that they are coming forward,” Knackstedt said. “Are there more things that could be addressed before the individuals come in to give some education and provide some skills that they could practice before they get to us? I think so. We haven’t quite found the method to get the information and deliver these group services often to big chunks of the student-athlete population. We’re working on that and doing our best to get more information to more people, but ultimately, Dr. Bennett and I don’t see the high numbers as something that we need to continually address.”

Knackstedt brings up a second challenge facing he, Bennett and those in sports medicine – finding a way to be proactive to alleviate future issues. They want to get on the front end of those issues, but how?

They do meet with teams and educate student-athletes on the services offered. They attend athletics events to develop the relationships with the student-athletes. Each semester, they conduct a “Mindfulness Workshop” designed to alleviate stress and anxiety, but that isn’t overly well attended. Student-athletes just simply lack the time to fit a session like this into their schedules.

“It’s a work in progress, I’ll be honest with you,” Knackstedt said. “I think our goal is to continue to offer unique and dynamic services that can meet the needs of people.

“Part of what we’re looking at is how we can get the information to student-athletes without adding another big obligation to their weekly schedules. That’s what we’re up against in terms of disseminating the information to the appropriate people – the time crunch and going up against other obligations that student-athletes take on when they do have the time.”

Ultimately, they work with the sports medicine staff to continue to treat Tech’s student-athletes, while trying to figure out the future for mental health services among that group. All staff members collect information, form opinions and then try to create a long-term vision for care.

Fortunately, Tech AD Whit Babcock understands the importance of sport psychology and continues to be proactive, while many AD’s continue to play catch-up on the topic. The Virginia Tech Athletics Department plans to continue devoting more resources to the sport psychology area.

“We need more staffing, and we’re working on that,” Bennett said. “Cook and our administration have a good relationship, and I’m still part of the Cook staff, so I get lots of benefits from being a part of that center in terms of psychiatric resources. So at this level, we need more staffing.

“At a larger level [nationwide], we need to keep getting the word out there that student-athletes aren’t immune from having mental health issues. They have a lot of the same issues that non-student-athletes have, and on top of that, the stress of being a student-athlete … So getting the word out there and making sure that schools have the resources in place, hopefully within departments, is key.”

Meanwhile, they can take some comfort in seeing their work pay dividends. Ulrich, for example, continues to pursue a degree in human nutrition, foods and exercise, while swimming for the Hokies, serving as the president of SAAC and participating as a member of the Leadership Advisory Team within the department’s Leadership Institute.

Perhaps more importantly, she shares her story with those around her – a brave step in the recovery process.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say I wouldn’t be at Virginia Tech, but I would go as far as saying that I wouldn’t be living my full potential,” she said when asked about the impact of Tech’s sport psychology area on her.

Cannon may be the biggest success story. He continues to meet periodically with Bennett, but a year after stabbing himself, he is on the cusp of his best semester academically. He also worked his way up the depth chart in his sport, and he even started the “Speak Up” movement, a Twitter-inspired undertaking that implores others to speak up about mental health issues.

And he, too, shares his story. He recently told it to several hundred people at an event at the German Club, with many teammates there to support him.

“The positive feedback I’ve gotten back is pretty neat,” Cannon said. “I don’t want to be remembered as Austin Cannon, the football player. I want to be remembered as Austin Cannon, the guy who helped me prevent my taking my own life, the guy who cares about others … the guy who wants to change the world one life at a time.”

There is a lot of Ut Prosim in that statement, and credit him, Ulrich and so many other Tech student-athletes for seeking assistance from the sport psychology area within the athletics department.

For sure, a brighter future now waits.

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