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'I know what it's like to be there alone:' FAU punter Sebastian Riella wants to end the mental health stigma, one tweet at a time

Palm Beach Post - 8/15/2019

BOCA RATON -- Sebastian Riella is a 5-foot-8, 200 pound punter for Florida Atlantic's football team. I'm a 5-foot-9, 240-pound (both generous measurements) journalist covering Florida Atlantic's football team.

Still, we share some things in common. A love of football, obviously. We both, in much different ways, are invested in FAU's performance this season.

We also suffer from panic attacks, just like roughly three percent of Americans, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. We're part of the 46.6 million Americans -- or 1 in 5 adults -- that experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"Everyone goes through it, but no one's willing to talk about it," Riella recently told the Palm Beach Post. "Everyone's just scared of being called crazy or something, but it's something that everyone deals with at some point in their life.

"And for me, I've always had trouble comparing myself to people ... Why not help someone compare themselves to someone who's like them in a way?"

A true sophomore, Riella spent last season as FAU's starting punter. Just like his teammates, he wants to win a Conference USA championship and experience a bowl game after FAU's disappointing 5-7 record last season.

But there's more to Riella than just his kicking. That's why he took to Twitter last month with a proposal: "College teams need to start implementing mental health classes into their programs. Lot of guys come from messed up backgrounds and don't know how to cope with certain things. Not only will it help now, but in the future."

College teams need to start implementing mental health classes into their programs. Lot of guys come from messed up backgrounds and don't know how to cope with certain things. Not only will it help now, but in the future. Just a thought.

-- Sebastian Riella (@SebastianRiella) July 19, 2019"I know what it's like to be there alone and think that you're alone," Riella said.

Riella said it took him a long time to accept his mental health struggles. He admitted to "putting on a face" and concealing his issues from everyone around him.

Riella added he struggled with his mental health last season. He had punts blocked in the season's first two weeks but his punting -- and health -- improved as the year went on.

"You don't want to be the guy in the room that's down and stuff, so for me, I try to hide it as much as possible but I can't escape it," Riella said. "But a ton of guys have come up to me and just been like, 'Yo, man, I had no clue you went through that.'"

Florida Atlantic covers mental health services during orientation for all incoming students, a university spokesperson told The Post. The school also offers counseling and psychological services, as well as an after-hours crisis line.

Riella isn't the only FAU player to discuss their mental health. Kicker Vladi Rivas admitted to battling anxiety and self-esteem issues throughout the 2018 season. Running back BJ Emmons and wide receiver John Mitchell have mentioned their own confidence problems.

"We follow all these rappers and football players and all we see is their highlights and all their money and all this, but we don't realize some of these people are the most depressed people in the world," Riella said. "Just because you think someone's life is what they show isn't what it is."

Riella spoke to The Post only days after the NBA reportedly outlined new mental health guidelines. Teams are required to make at least one to two mental health professionals available, according to The Athletic.

"I really loved it," Riella said of the NBA's approach. "I know Kevin Love, he's a huge advocate for it because he had his first panic attack in the middle of a game and he felt like he was dying. Personally, I know you feel like you're dying."

Riella has FAU's support. Senior associate athletic director Jessica Poole tweeted Riella made a "great suggestion." Former FAU faculty athletics representative Dr. Kim Dunn, who is also an accounting professor at the university, proposed the counseling center "create a program that addresses the challenges of being a student-athlete."

Riella praised Dr. Raphi Wald, a psychiatrist who works with the football program, as an "amazing man." It's partly from his interactions with Wald that has Riella, who turns 20 in September, taking a different approach to mental health.

"This is going to be a life thing for those guys," Riella said. "They're able to just cope with not only basketball, football, whatever it may be, but just we all have problems in real life, whether it be not having enough money or having too much money or (football) or girls or whatever it is ... everyone goes through things."

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