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CU Buffs athletics, student group, working to make impact in mental health

Daily Camera - 9/23/2018

Sept. 22--It started off as a class project and, truthfully, Jalen Tompkins wasn't initially sold on the idea.

Tompkins was tasked in a psychology class last spring with picking a community she cares about and researching a mental illness that impacts that community. Tompkins' professor suggested that she focus on mental health in sports.

"Is it really that big of a deal?," she thought.

Tompkins soon discovered that it is a much bigger deal than most people realize, and now the University of Colorado senior -- who is one of the best women's soccer goalkeepers in the Pac-12 Conference -- is doing her part to spread the word.

This fall, led by Tompkins and women's basketball standout Kennedy Leonard, the Bolder Buffs Peer Advocacy Program has been formed. It's one of many efforts being made by the CU athletic department -- and the school in general -- to bring awareness to mental health.

CU is dedicating Friday's football game against UCLA to mental health awareness.

Out of the shadows

For years, mental illness, especially in athletics, had been brushed aside and looked down upon, but that is changing.

Recently, high profile athletes, including Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, women's tennis legend Serena Williams and NBA star Kevin Love, have publicly discussed their struggles with mental illness.

In the past two years, former CU football players Drew Wahlroos and 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam committed suicide. In January, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski took his life.

Losing Wahlroos, Salaam, Hilinski and others has brought some attention to mental illness, but the problem goes well beyond those tragedies. A 2016 study of 465 collegiate athletes, conducted by researchers from Kean University and Drexel University, determined that 24 percent of them showed signs of depression.

University of Southern California volleyball player Victoria Garrick conducted a TED Talks speech on mental health in the summer of 2017. A walk-on, Garrick achieved her dream of not only playing, but earning a starting role for one of the top programs in the country. On the outside, Garrick said, she had it all. The pressure and time demands on her as a high-level student athlete, however, gave her intense anxiety and led her to seek counseling.

"I had this dark cloud over my head and it followed me everywhere," Garrick said during her speech.

To convince Tompkins of how real the issue is, her professor showed her that video of Garrick's speech.

"It kind of just opened my eyes to somebody verbalizing what we all go through every day, but then realizing, 'OK, some people are hit way harder,'" Tompkins said. "I don't have depression. I'm very lucky. But a lot of people go through all these things, the same things I go through, and it hits them way harder."

Recognizing the need

CU is now one of several universities around the country that's beginning to make mental health a priority.

The athletic department is currently aiming to raise $2 million to put towards mental health -- using funds for additional staffing, resources and programs designed to assist the student-athletes.

Chris Bader is in his seventh year as the Buffs' sports psychologist, but could no longer do the job alone. Earlier this year, CU hired Erin Rubenking, a licensed professional counselor and addictions counselor, to work alongside Bader.

"We want to create one of the best mental health departments inside an athletic department that we can," CU athletic director Rick George said. "It's going to be a major area of focus for us and we're actively out fund raising to provide some resources so that we can do the things that we need from a mental health perspective."

The athletic department is also working with the CU campus, as it expands and improves mental health services for all students.

"Perhaps more than any other generation before them, we know that current and incoming students are more open to seeking care and receiving support when they are experiencing anxiety or depression or are seeking recovery from addictive behaviors," said assistant vice chancellor for student affairs Jennifer McDuffie. "During the first week of this academic year alone, we saw a 38.5 percent increase in student walk-ins compared to our average over the last academic year."

With a growing need for services, CU is aiming to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health. That's the primary objective for Tompkins, Leonard and the Bolder Buffs -- a club made up of CU student athletes to take care of each other.

Working with George, Bader and Rubenking this spring, Leonard and Tompkins came up with the idea for Bolder Buffs and then recruited their fellow student athletes. Their goal was to get a diversified group, with at least one representative from each sport at CU.

Overwhelming support

As part of her class project, Tompkins made a pamphlet, titled, "Breaking the stigma of depression in student athletes." She was unsure how it would be received as she passed them out and then spoke to a group of student-athletes about her objective.

Tompkins' hesitation quickly vanished.

"I was shocked at how many people wanted to be a part of the project," she said. "To hear how many people are so passionate about mental illness, it really gives me so much hope in CU, especially because these people I talk to every day. I had no idea they were so passionate about something like this. I didn't know I was so passionate about it until I did the research and I was annoyed and (upset) and then I was happy again because I knew we could do something."

Now, the Bolder Buffs -- comprised of nearly 20 student-athletes of both genders and different ethnicities -- meet regularly to train each other on how to recognize when their peers are struggling and how to help them. Their mission statement: "Ensuring that University of Colorado student-athletes' mental health is put first through education, mentoring, awareness, and programming."

While Bader and Rubenking are the professional counselors, the Bolder Buffs work on being allies to their peers and focusing on three Rs: recognize, respond, refer.

"It's educating yourself, educating others and being an ally," Tompkins said. "Everything else, we can build off of. It's not that hard just to be nice to people and care for people and watch out for these little (signs of depression).

"You never know when you're going to help somebody. I had a senior who helped me through really hard times and I don't think she knew she helped me. I don't think she knew how much it meant to me. But it did, and I will remember that and I hope to do that for my freshmen and my sophomore (classmates) and everybody else."

Challenges for athletes

The need for mental health awareness in athletes is unique because they are "supposed to be strong," Tompkins said. Fans see the Buffaloes perform on the field or court on game day, but don't realize the struggles some of those athletes deal with on a daily basis.

Nick Fisher, a senior on the CU football team, joined the Bolder Buffs because he recognized the need on his team.

"Coming here, it can be tough for football players," he said.

Struggles include being away from home for the first time, adjusting to the intensity of coaches and more challenging classes and, for some, no longer being the star they were in high school.

"Every man was the man where they come from and they come here, it's like, 'You're not going to play,'" said Fisher, from Temecula, Calif. "Your world might crumble. That can really turn quick on a football player's mind out here and other student athletes, as well."

Fisher is a senior captain, but didn't play much in his first two years. Last year, he was a projected starter until a hamstring injury sidelined him for several weeks -- pushing him into a backup role once again.

At different times in his career, Fisher said he's leaned on Bader or teammates to get through some adversity. Now, he wants his teammates to realize it's OK to get help.

"If they see someone like me or someone else out there that's a leader on the football team admitting to some of those things, they might come talk to you," Fisher said. "You might help save them with whatever they're going through and help them deal with it a little better."

There's no guarantee that counseling and better peer support would have prevented the tragic loss of Hilinski and others, but Washington State receiver Kyle Sweet believes that simply opening up about struggles can be beneficial.

"We need to make it OK for guys, specifically, to understand that it's OK to get help," Sweet told BuffZone this summer. "If they're feeling something, then talk to someone about it, no matter who it is, no matter what you talk about; you just have to get it out there.

"I feel like for the most part, guys want to be stronger and don't want to say what they're feeling and what their emotions are like. That's something that, as a society, we have to get past. That's one thing we have to do is just get rid of the stigma."

Proactive efforts

In an effort to prevent more tragedies in the future, CU is now trying to conduct general mental health screening with incoming student-athletes, looking at their moods, alcohol and cannabis use, childhood experiences, and ADHD and general mental health history.

"We're looking at some of the larger categories of mental health and figuring out, 'Can we identify if this person might need outreach versus reaction?'" Bader said. "We just started doing that (in the fall of 2017), but we found out this year with a couple of people that through their mental health screen, I did some outreach in the fall and they'd come in for services.

"A lot of the work we want to move into is prevention."

As the stigma of mental health begins to disappear, CU is seeing an increase in service requests from student-athletes, and Rubenking said she's thrilled to be a part of the Buffs' growing efforts in mental health.

"I'm really excited about it, and the support that Rick (George) has given us has been huge," she said. "In my mind, I think the need is huge. I think everyone can benefit from coming to counseling. Being able to offer as much support and services that we can, the better our student athletes are going to be, whether that's on the field or just in life."

CU head football coach Mike MacIntyre said he believes college students are dealing with more mental struggles than in years past, in large part because of social media.

Social media often paints a false impression that everything is great in a person's life. Also, athletes -- particularly football players -- often get harshly criticized on social media for mistakes made in games.

Seeing more of a need for mental wellness, as MacIntyre calls it, he's thrilled that CU is making it a priority.

"I deal with teenagers or guys right out of it, so that's something that's very dear to my heart," he said. "Loving these kids and caring for them, and at the same time pushing them and helping them and disciplining them, is all part of it. I'm glad we have people here helping with it. When there are situations that I feel like are beyond me, those people are helping all the time."

Making a difference

CU's efforts don't stop when the student-athletes graduate and hang up the cleats.

Buffs4Life, founded 13 years ago, has helped former CU athletes through different trials. The deaths of Salaam, Wahlroos and others have led Buffs4Life this year to turn its efforts to suicide prevention. Former CU football coaches Gary Barnett and Brian Cabral are leading those efforts.

"There's a great need and the great thing is that when (CU) is working with their student athletes while they have them, they can hand them off to us and know that they're still going to be taken care of," Cabral said. "It's just starting to evolve, the things that need to happen for the student athletes now, but more importantly for the future."

Tompkins is just getting started, too. What began as a class project has become a passion and it brings her great joy to see what has been done already in the past few months.

"The end goal is not just a project, but I want to help people," she said. "'Leave it better than you left it' is what Kennedy said. I could not agree more. We're not being trained to be clinicians; that's not the goal of this (Bolder Buffs) program. It's to help each other be there and educate and de-stigmatize mental health and mental illness.

"If we can just help one person, the club has done something."

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at or


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