Saving lives is the goal of student-athlete program

A dark subject is moving closer to the light.

Three Nova Scotia universities have joined in a pilot program centred in the Atlantic provinces to counter suicide among student-athletes.

The Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI), centred in Ontario, announced the launch of a student-athlete suicide prevention training program in September.

It comes less than two years after Alex McLaughlin, a former Acadia basketball guard and high school player in Dartmouth, committed suicide. His family has staged a basketball tournament in Alex’s memory over the last two summers with the proceeds assisting the suicide prevention initiative.

Acadia, Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie are enrolled in the program along with UNB and Memorial. Memorial lost basketball forward Jacob Ranton to suicide over the holiday break in 2014.

Samantha DeLenardo, SAMHI co-founder and program director, said it is a difficult topic and one that has often been missing on campus.

She said the warning signs aren’t always apparent, but education can aid those suffering with mental health issues as well as those trying to help them.

“You may not see it and they may not be showing it, too,” she said. “There are situations where people get very good at hiding what they are going through and putting on that brave front and not letting people see that they are in pain and they need help.”

She said “playing through pain” is something athletes in general have always accepted.

“Sometimes they don’t reach out. The education piece that we are trying to push forward is that (someone) might be OK this week, but it might come back, so what do you need to look out for.”

Acadia athletic director Kevin Dickie said there are things discussed today in university athletic departments that weren’t discussed a decade ago.

He said there is a broader interest in mental health in society in general that is reflected in discussions that happen within varsity sport.

“It’s now something that we encourage,” he said. “I see it on our campus and it’s way outside of our athletic department. So I think that’s a positive thing.

“We knew it needed to go to a different level for different reasons. Alex, and the McLaughlin family, is part of that, but it is beyond that.”

He said Acadia is a perfect school for the project and not because of any past events. Acadia is small and rooted in the Annapolis Valley community.

“We’re concerned about the broad spectrum of mental health,” said Dickie.

“Talk of suicide prevention, that’s at the end of the spectrum. For us, it’s about the whole broader piece.”

According to SAMHI, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15-24 age group and the third leading cause of death among NCAA student-athletes, though no similar figures are available in Canada.

Canadian university athletes may devote 25 hours or more per week to their sport. Mixed with a need to achieve academically and manage time, the stress levels can rise.

Under the new program, two student-athletes and one staff member from each team will receive LivingWorks’ SafeTALK training, which prepares participants to recognize people with suicidal intentions and behaviours and to provide guidelines for intervention.

One athletic therapist from each school will receive LivingWorks’ Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.

Both initiatives working in unison can provide a team of first responders. In addition, SAMHI will add a mental health education component to the training.

“The loss of Alex devastated our family and we felt compelled to try to prevent the tragedy of suicide from affecting another student-athlete,” Liz McLaughlin, Alex’s mother, said in a media release announcing the program.

“The tournament is our way of remembering and honouring Alex in a way that he would love while trying to bring awareness to the topic of suicide prevention. This program … is a wonderful start and will surely have a huge impact with this group of young people.”

Memorial men’s basketball coach Peter Benoite said Ranton’s death had a profound impact on him and the Sea-Hawks program.

“One of the things I’ve been most grateful for is that Jacob’s parents have been very open regarding Jacob’s death,” said Benoite.

“Their willingness to talk about it has certainly helped me and has certainly helped me deal with that with my team. Being able to talk about it openly has made it easier to engage in conversation, and to make it easier to talk about mental health issues.”

DeLenardo is meeting with the athletic directors from the five schools in October. That will lay the groundwork for the project.

She said there has always been a pressure for student-athletes to perform in the classroom and on the field. The culture has always challenged athletes to fight through their difficulties — to suck it up —rather than to share struggles with others.

“A lot of these student-athletes have to maintain a certain GPA to compete with their team, so that pressure is always there,” she said. “But to be clear, mental illness, and mental health problems, can happen to anybody at any time.

“But what we are saying is there are certain exacerbating components in a student-athlete’s life that can make it a little bit worse for them.”

She said a world that demands mental toughness can make student-athletes feel embarrassed to ask for help over something they might consider a weakness.

“It’s not a weakness, and it happens,” she said. “This is what we’re trying to get across.”

The goal is to expand the program to universities across the country.

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