Meet the game-changers leading a mental health movement among student-athletes
Tyreik Thomas steps onto the rugby pitch at Nazareth University in Pittsford for one of the last practices of a two-week-long intensive camp.
The whole group calls out, “Ready, ready, ready, HUH!” and Thomas drives into a pad that one of his teammates holds up, simulating the kind of hits he’ll take in a game.
The drills condition the athletes for the intense competition they will face this year, facing off against Ivy League schools like Brown University and Harvard in the Liberty Rugby Conference’s highest-level division: D1A.
It’s a lot of pressure, but Thomas relishes the challenge.
“Playing rugby, it helps improve my character as a person,” Thomas said. “Because when you play a game, you make mistakes, you'll sometimes get in your head, but just being able to embrace that kind of stuff, you get to build your confidence outside of rugby.”
That attitude wasn’t always the case for Thomas. He used to feel overwhelmed sometimes. But he’s learned a lot since coming to Nazareth.
One of those lessons happened last year. He’d injured his knee while making a tackle. As he was recovering, one of his teammates put out a note to the rugby team about a club called Morgan’s Message.
Thomas decided to check it out.
“That session was mostly focusing on mental health,” he said. “As the meeting went on, we also spoke about ‘How does having an injury affect you mentally?’ And ‘What do you do to help cope with that?’”
The club at Nazareth is one of nearly 1,400 Morgan’s Message ambassador programs at colleges and high schools around the country. These programs are a place where students lead conversations about mental health.
It’s one of several grassroots organizations aimed at preventing suicides among student-athletes.
Right now is a crucial moment for it. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students in the U.S.
According to American College Health Association data, suicide rates among 15- to 24-year-olds in the country have risen 51% in the last decade. About 1,100 college students die by suicide each year, and most were not receiving mental health treatment at the time of their deaths.
That first club meeting was the first time Thomas had really talked about mental health. It kind of went against the concept of masculinity that he grew up with.
“Growing up for me, I would probably say that men shouldn't necessarily open up too much because then you may be seen as weak. You’re supposed to ... be masculine. But that's not the right thing.”
During his first year with the rugby team, that concept changed for him.
“I was feeling kind of overwhelmed with practice and school,” he said. “I just had a whole mental breakdown.”
He told his coach and teammates about it — and they responded with compassion.
“‘We're here,” he said they told him. “‘If you need anything, don't be afraid to speak up about something.’ And just making me feel comfortable and knowing that there's people out there who cares about me and just wants to see me be good.”
That’s the kind of culture Thomas’ teammate Pat Notaro is working to bring to rugby and other sports on campus.
“You don't just wake up one day and you're depressed or all of the sudden you're anxious,” Notaro said. “It's just kind of little things that build on top of themselves.”
Notaro is the student ambassador for the Morgan’s Message club at Nazareth. He’s the one who encouraged Thomas and others to attend.
Little things that he’s learned from the club — like grounding exercises — are becoming part of his team’s culture.
Notaro said before, if he made a mistake, he’d kick the ground and couldn’t get out of his own head for the rest of the game.
Now: “I'll just pull some grass up off the ground, sniff it, center yourself a little bit and kind of reset,” he said. “It's hard to keep yourself serious when people are telling you to sniff some grass.”
Morgan’s Message has had a transformative effect on Notaro and Thomas. That’s the goal of the ambassador program.
Its genesis, however, comes from a fatal tragedy.
The club's namesake is Morgan Rodgers, a nationally recognized lacrosse player from Virginia who played levels above the competition.
“I still hear her laugh. Just absolutely contagious,” said Meaghan Birnie, Rodgers’ close friend and former teammate from middle and high school. “Anyone whose path she crossed, you would walk away smiling. She was goofy. She was always dancing.”
Rodgers went on to play at Duke University, but in a sudden event, her sports career came to an end.
“That's kind of where the spiral occurred,” Birnie said.
No one knew how badly Rodgers was hurting emotionally, Birnie said, not her family or her friends, so they can only speculate based on what they know about her and her situation.
“It's not one of those things that you can just see because it's an internal battle,” she said. “She didn't know ... what her life would be like without having lacrosse, because she came from a really small town and she was the one who made it.
“She was kind of that symbol of, ‘OK, this is possible.’”
Then in one moment, that identity and that life’s purpose was ripped away. She blew out her knee: meniscus, ACL, and MCL. A year and a half later, she died by suicide. She was 22.
Birnie is now the communications director of the Morgan’s Message organization. They provide education and resources for clubs like the one Notaro leads at Nazareth.
“We're not clinical in nature, but we have a medical advisory board that informs all of our presentations that we give or the resources we give to these students who have chapters on their campuses,” she said. “I think the most special part about what we do is the fact that the ambassador program is peer to peer.”
Birnie said that approach is crucial to breaking down barriers built by stigma, which she believes played a significant role in Rodgers’ death.
“It's important also for programs to be put in place for coaches to learn about mental health and how to lead players or coach players that may have these underlying difficulties or even ones that may just present because something’s happening,” she said. "There's so many different things that can spark it.”
Down the hill from the rugby field at Nazareth University, Gail Mann coaches the women’s soccer team. Mann is on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, and she’s known for taking a mental health-first approach in her coaching.
Over the summer, she had her athletes keep a journal, and as of last season, she's brought in a licensed mental health coach to talk with the team.
It stems in part from her own experience.
“We had a player pass away in 2000,” Mann said. “It was really, really, really a struggle for a lot of our players.
That moment made her realize the importance of talking about your feelings, she said.
“I had to evolve and become a little bit more soft,” she said.
That’s translated into players’ performance on the field as well, Mann said.
“I think they play with maybe less fear,” she said.
On a grassroots level, Birnie hopes Morgan’s Message will help more students become well-versed in mental health awareness in ways she wasn’t taught in school.
In turn, she said that could contribute to a culture that reduces harm instead of creating it.
“The other systematic issues that follow … are failing. There can be something ahead of that where, hopefully, it can lessen the burdens and barriers to access.”