A first-of-it-kind pilot project at University of Guelph that seeks to provide peer-supported mental health supports for varsity athletes is being led by a recent graduate who was himself a Gryphon just last year.
Keith Hamilton spent four years as a goaltender for the varsity men’s hockey team while majoring in psychology at the University of Guelph.
Now a graduate, Hamilton is now team leader of the all new Student Support Network for Varsity Athletes program at the university.
In his time as a varsity athlete and while researching his honours thesis on mental health in varsity sports, Hamilton saw first hand the unique stressors that can trigger mental health events in those athletes.
“One is the time commitment — you’re trying to balance academics and athletics. Obviously you are also at high risk for other things to do with mental illness, like injuries and involuntary retirement,” said Hamilton.
Scott McRoberts, athletic director for University of Guelph, said the institution has been working toward raising the awareness around mental health issues in recent years, and with that heightened awareness more cases have been reported.
“The volume has definitely increased and people are asking for more help. For that, we wanted to make sure we had the resources available to them,” said McRoberts.
In his research, Hamilton discovered varsity athletes experience mental health issues at about the same rate as the rest of the student population, but may be less likely to seek out help.
“There are a multitude of barriers that stand in the way for anyone seeking help. Specifically for varsity athletes, a lot of the time what is brought up is the stigma around mental illness,” said Hamilton.
His honours thesis identified a gap in mental health services for athletes and concluded enhancing them would be beneficial for Gryphon athletes.
“The athletic department already identified mental health as an area they could improve this year and I ended up pitching this idea to them. Then we started working with Student Wellness to develop it,” said Hamilton.
In his research, Hamilton was not able to find a similar program for supporting the mental health of varsity athletes at any other school in Canada.
The Student Support Network at University of Guelph is an already well-established entity on campus under student wellness, noted Hamilton.
“We’re creating a satellite campus of that operation that is embedded within Athletics. We are taking all of their training and procedures and implementing them where we are,” he said.
The volunteers providing the peer support in the program are student athletes themselves, said Hamilton, “so they can understand that unique experience other athletes go through.”
A varsity athlete can drop in to seek help, information for themselves or information how to identify someone who may be struggling with mental health challenges.
“The mandate is to provide a safe, non-judgemental and confidential space for an individual who has come to seek out someone to listen to them,” said Hamilton.
The program is intended to support varsity athletes, noted McRoberts, as well as students using recreational sports programs, athletics staff and coaches.
If successful, McRoberts hopes the pilot program will be made permanent and possibly be adopted by other post-secondary institutions across Canada.
About 750 varsity athletes compete each year for the university, said McRoberts.
“We do so much around their physical health and their strength and nutrition, but we haven’t really focused on their mental health. With the increase of mental health issues,” he said.