Ryan: From a student-athlete, it’s OK to not be OK

Caleigh Ryan, Op-Ed Contributor

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We aren’t perfect. No one is. Everyone has tough times, dark thoughts and seriously considers what they are doing in life — especially at a place like Northwestern, where it seems like everyone is doing well. It can be so easy to think you’re alone. You are not.

Though it can be difficult to remember, it is OK to not be OK. And Jordan Hankins’ memory should help remind us of the importance of talking about mental health.

To get to a school like NU, you have to expect a lot out of yourself. Everyone here thinks they can do it all by themselves. The environment of perfection is perpetuated not only by professors, but also by our peers — and this is where we need to take a look at ourselves. This type of pressure is neither healthy nor safe.

As a varsity athlete on the volleyball team, I can’t tell you how often my team gets criticized for our performance. Words are hurled when we don’t perform in the toughest conference in the nation. There comes a point during the season when an athlete feels disheartened, beaten down and sometimes useless. I felt that way when our team lost 17 out of our last 18 games. It is so incredibly hard to separate your sense of self from your performance. This needs to change.

NU’s culture surrounding achievements is unhealthy. The standard is set unreasonably high by straight-A students who also balance being in a sorority, having a part-time job and maybe enjoying their social life. Forget sleep. The desire to overcommit is abundantly clear. We then compare our own accomplishments to those of our classmates, creating an endless cycle of perceived inadequacy and the feelings of hopelessness that accompany it.

We need to remove the stigma around mental illness for athletes and all college students. Athletes are viewed as “tough,” “able to handle things” and “just needing to rub some dirt on it.” You can’t rub dirt on a mental illness.

Asking for help is hard, but it can change your life. We need to create a more loving, open environment: an environment where people feel like they can talk about mental health and not live in fear that they are weak. I could throw around statistics about how many college students suffer from mental illness, but I won’t. Because if you think long and hard you will realize you know at least one or two people who might be suffering. Have you reached out to them?

Don’t be scared. Mental health is just as important, if not more important, than physical health. And if we don’t start addressing it properly, we will all suffer. Remove the stigma. It’s OK to not be OK. Rest in peace, Jordan. You will never be forgotten.

Caleigh Ryan is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at caleighryan2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.