Slam dunk for mental health

Krista Van Slingerland stands in a gym holding a basketball.

“It’s wrong to assume the status of an athlete automatically equips him or her with an innate resilience to these stresses. 

 – Krista Van Slingerland

By Linda Scales

Published Tuesday December 15, 2015

When University of Ottawa student-athlete Krista Van Slingerland talks about the national mental health initiative for student-athletes that she co-founded in March 2014, you know you’ve met a hero, someone intent on improving the world for the many varsity athletes walking in her shoes.

Van Slingerland is a master’s student in human kinetics at the University and a guard for the Gee-Gees women’s basketball team. She suffered from clinical depression and anxiety as an undergraduate student-athlete at another university, and while her story is personal and difficult to discuss, she tells it often to peers, sports-related organizations and universities across Canada.

Sharing her feelings could make a difference. “That’s why it is important to be open about those awkward topics such as suicide,” she says.

What makes student-athletes unique from other students, who experience mental health issues at the same rate, is the code of mental toughness ingrained into their psyches, which can prevent them from seeking out medical help and support.

“Mental illness in sports is treated almost like (physical) injuries,” says Van Slingerland. “Are you hurt or are you injured? If I can push through this and I can still play then that’s what I’m going to do. It’s not really healthy, but it’s the culture of sports.”

As well, the pressure faced by student-athletes is immense. “It’s wrong to assume the status of an athlete automatically equips him or her with an innate resilience to these stresses,” she says, referring to the seemingly never-ending challenge of balancing coursework, classes, sports practice and competition, plus seeing friends and family, and doing the more mundane things such as laundry.

Van Slingerland, along with alumna (and former Gee-Gees women’s hockey player) Samantha DeLenardo, set up the volunteer-based Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) to bring awareness about the mental health difficulties experienced by many university students active in varsity sports and to provide information about available resources.

The University – through Sports Services, especially – takes some of the pressure off student-athletes by offering support such as scholarships, tutoring and funding for food and accommodation when travelling for competitions. However, the University wants to do more, including offering more coaching support, better training facilities and increased one-on-one attention that will allow all of its student-athletes to thrive both physically and psychologically.

And in taking a cue from Van Slingerland on mental health, and upping its support for all student-athletes, the University is inviting the community to join in filling some very large sneakers.

In 2015, the University of Ottawa launched a $400 million fundraising campaign. Defy the Conventional: The Campaign for uOttawa is raising funds to support priorities in every faculty. The campaign will help uOttawa recruit and retain top talent and enrich the student experience. Donations will also support innovative capital projects.

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