Mental Health Awareness Month was established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans’ lives and to celebrate recovery from mental illness. At Team IMPACT, 77% of student-athletes who participate in the program feel their mental wellbeing has improved since joining the program. We know that our student-athletes are more than athletes—they are mentors, leaders, and advocates, on and off the field. This month, we spoke to our Fellows to share some insight into their personal journeys with mental health and to raise awareness for this important month.
Alaina Abel, a student-athlete at Loyola University Chicago, shares her transformative experiences with Team IMPACT. Being an athlete has profoundly influenced Alaina’s self-identity, teaching her that her athletic performance does not define her. Alaina says she was drawn to Team IMPACT because of the community and camaraderie that come with team. “Team IMPACT exemplifies community, family, and what it looks like to create a positive imprint on the world,” she says. “I immediately knew after hearing about this organization that I wanted to be a part of furthering their mission.” She has done that through her participation in the Fellowship Program and through her team’s match with vibrant 12-year-old Carlina. Alaina and Carlina’s special bond has helped foster both girls’ social growth and emotional connections. “After meeting Carlina, I found a new layer of vulnerability in myself that I didn’t know I had,” Alaina recalls. “Building a strong relationship with Carlina has put a lot of my ‘problems’ in perspective and allowed me to be more honest with myself and others on how I am feeling.” Alaina, who lives with depression, initially struggled to open up due to the societal pressure she felt as an athlete to be invincible. However, finding a sense of family in her team, athletic department, and Team IMPACT has provided support that encouraged self-reflection and gratitude and gave her the courage to share her story. By addressing the stigma surrounding mental illness, Alaina hopes to help foster vulnerability to promote understanding and support that help other student-athletes like her feel less alone. “The stigma attached with mental illness enables athletes to neglect their own inner struggles and hide from them,” she says. “I believe we all need to be a little more vulnerable about our struggles. If we all were a little more transparent and open about what our lives look like, we would find comfort in the fact that everyone goes through valleys. Vulnerability is the first step to ending the stigma, and even though it may seem like a small step, its results could be life-changing.”
Alaina hopes to take the support and love she’s received through Team IMPACT and spread it to others. “Not only has Team IMPACT itself influenced me, but all the people within the program continue to leave such a positive imprint on me. They remind me how loved and supported I am and do not shy away from showing this. Team IMPACT’s leadership team and Fellows continue to empower me to share my truth and are such an amazing source of encouragement to use my story to make a difference in our world.”
One of the people Alaina has met through Team IMPACT is Fellow Annabelle Hasselbeck, a student-athlete at Boston College. Annabelle embraces her role as a college athlete with passion and dedication, showcasing her selfless attitude towards supporting her fellow BC student-athletes. Whether it’s cheering them on during their games or providing encouragement off the field, Annabelle finds fulfillment in being a positive force within her athletic community. This commitment to building a strong sense of camaraderie and support reflects her belief in the power of unity and teamwork. Annabelle credits Team IMPACT with providing her with a lifeline of support and sanctuary for her mental well-being amidst the demands of college athletics. Annabelle calls the program “a life-giving and soul-protecting aspect” of her collegiate athletic experience.
Annabelle and her women’s lacrosse teammates are matched with twins Lucy and Sophie, not only gaining a teammate but an entire new family of reciprocal joy and support through Team IMPACT. This mutual connection serves as a reminder that sports, although incredibly important to Annabelle, do not define her journey. Her experience with Team IMPACT has helped Annabelle maintain a balanced perspective on her athletic journey. “Sports are one of my favorite parts of life, but sports do not rule my life. Team IMPACT helps remind me of this truth,” Annabelle says. This holistic mindset allows Annabelle to navigate the pressures of athletics while at the same time valuing her mental and emotional well-being, exemplifying the transformative power of team. Every day through Team IMPACT, she discovers the importance of nurturing relationships and embracing the joy that extends beyond her life as a college athlete and is reminded that by fostering a supportive environment and prioritizing mental wellness, we can create a positive and empowering space for all student-athletes.
Anthony Hinton, student-athlete on the Duke Football team, was drawn to Team IMPACT’s Fellowship Program because it provided him “an opportunity to use [his] platform as a student-athlete to help others and give back.” Anthony did not anticipate how much he would receive through the program and his now life-long friendship with nine-year-old Creed. “For Anthony and his team, Creed has been a shining example of what it means to be a strong, compassionate, and caring individual. “Celebrating our successes with Creed has become such a major part of our team’s experience this past year,” Anthony shares. “Creed without question has made us better.” Creed has helped Anthony through a struggle many student-athletes face: finding a role and purpose outside of athletics. “You will always find fulfillment in being yourself and empathizing with others,” Anthony says. “I speak for the entire Duke Football leadership team when I say that spending time with Creed is the best part of our week.”
One Fellow who has long been a public advocate for mental health awareness is Anthony Pecorella, who began his journey with Team IMPACT while playing football at the University of Maryland. When Anthony first met his teammate Cal, he was unaware of the impact he and the program would make. After two years, Anthony considers Cal a close friend and believes that everyone can learn something from Cal. “Cal does everything with a smile,” Anthony says. “We should all tackle life with the happy mindset of having the privilege to exist in the moment.”
Julia Nagy, a psychology student and volleyball player at DePaul University, values the supportive community she has found in sports, describing her teammates as a sisterhood and family. She witnesses firsthand the transformative effect of a supportive team and acknowledges the vital role her teammates play in her own mental well-being, providing strength and comfort. “We go through everything together as a team, and because of that, I’m able to lean on them to give me strength in my times of weakness,” she says. “They’re always there to make me laugh when I’m having a terrible day, but they’re also there to cry with me. They’re there for all of it and don’t leave my side.” She finds encouragement and inspiration from the resilience and determination of the individuals involved in Team IMPACT, which fuels her own perseverance. Julia advocates for prioritizing mental well-being in the athlete community and urges society to value athletes beyond their sporting achievements. “I believe that athletes need to see that they are not their sport. Their identity as a person is completely separate from their ability to succeed on the court. Their sport is not their identity. Since sports are such a publicized event, a student-athlete is often only seen for how they can produce on the floor—they are rarely ever known for the human they are outside of their sport. These athletes need to be valued not for what they can produce, but for who they already are. Their identity cannot and should not be placed upon something as temporary as a win or lose.”
Paul Retterer, a soon-to-be USC graduate, is a multifaceted individual passionate about swimming, film, writing, outdoor activities, and magic. Paul’s dedication to personal growth led him to become a Fellow at Team IMPACT, where he shares his love for sports and contributes to individual growth. Through this program, he has transformed his communication skills and discovered the value of constant learning. Recognizing the pressure faced by student-athletes, Paul advocates for society to provide support systems and change the narrative surrounding mental health. His involvement with Team IMPACT and commitment to mental health advocacy demonstrate his dedication to making a positive impact on others.
Our Fellows are leaders and mentors, on and off their campuses, who exemplify being more than an athlete and use their platforms to advocate for themselves and others. We recognize these Fellows and the millions of others who are living with mental health struggles this Mental Health Awareness Month.