A Towson University student walks on the pedestrian bridge across Burke Avenue. The student organization "Own Your Roar" has recently begun a mentorship program to encourage older student-athletes to look out for newcomers, particularly their mental health.
A Towson University student walks on the pedestrian bridge across Burke Avenue. The student organization "Own Your Roar" has recently begun a mentorship program to encourage older student-athletes to look out for newcomers, particularly their mental health. (Steve Ruark/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

This fall, nearly 20 million young men and women headed to colleges and universities in the United States, many for the first time. Already, freshman students in particular have faced challenges and pressures like they’ve never confronted before. They are living far from home, taking academically rigorous classes and dealing with new, often awkward social circumstances. They may feel isolated and lonely, are perhaps not sleeping or eating well and likely stressed out yet afraid to seek help or counseling. And student-athletes have the added pressure of intercollegiate competition, maintaining scholarships and sometimes dealing with physical injuries that tax their self-esteem and patience.

In this challenging environment, it should come as no surprise that campus suicide has been on the rise, the rate tripling over the past seven decades. It’s the second most common cause of death among young adults behind only car crashes and other accidents. Given this reality, mental health outreach should be a high priority on every campus, but there’s just so much adults and health professionals can do. As much as anything, schools need to raise awareness and create support systems within the student body. Towson University appears to have accomplished exactly that with students helping students — and it deserves to be a model for schools everywhere.

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As reported by The Sun’s Edward Lee, the student-founded organization “Own Your Roar” has delivered a timely message encouraging student-athletes to look out for their own mental health. Founded in 2018 by then-sophomore gymnast Olivia Lubarsky, the organization has campaigned to raise awareness and validate student feelings of depression and other ills. As the 21-year-old told The Sun, she discovered that while a physical injury received all sorts of attention (having ruptured her Achilles tendon in a practice she had firsthand knowledge of this), mental health concerns did not.

Student-athletes emphasize mental health awareness through "Own Your Roar" campaign at Towson University.
Student-athletes emphasize mental health awareness through "Own Your Roar" campaign at Towson University. (Credit: Towson University Athletics/Credit: Towson University Athletics)

That’s unfortunate given the risk factors involved. While schools have often invested more in on-campus mental health services in recent years, there’s still a basic, deeply-rooted stigma to overcome. Even resident assistants and other dorm custodians trained to spot warning signs such as mood swings or substance abuse aren’t necessarily attuned to the feelings of every student under their watch. How much better if depressed, sad or anxious individuals could step forward and reveal their pain to others — the same as anyone with a twisted ankle or broken bone would seek help? Own Your Roar has even gone a step further and this fall, the organization established mentorships with older student-athletes providing guidance and advice to younger colleagues.

Why haven’t all Division I universities established similar programs? Why don’t Division II or III for that matter? Towson immediately attracted 80 student-athlete participants. We bet it will expand over time. The responsibility of looking out for the mental health of students doesn’t fall on just one individual. Families need to stay in touch, peers ought to listen to the concerns of roommates, teammates and friends and so on. But how much better if everyone could be their own best friend, their own counselor, their own advocate? Can Towson University become known as the place that fosters a culture where students are willing to acknowledge their pain and seek help? That would be a nice reputation to have. Certainly, it would be a comfort to parents.

Dark storm clouds pass over Towson University before an afternoon thunderstorm last spring.
Dark storm clouds pass over Towson University before an afternoon thunderstorm last spring.

With all that’s going on in the world, we don’t often have space to laud the work of campus organizations, but this seems especially timely and appropriate. In case anyone has forgotten, the United States experiences twice as many suicides each year (47,173 in 2017 including 6,252 between the ages of 15 and 24) as it does homicides (19,510 the same year), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The question isn’t whether colleges should be attuned to this risk, it’s why would any campus organization not be? As an often-cited 2016 University of Washington study observed, at least 477 student-athletes killed themselves during the decade leading up to 2013.

Let the roar from the Towson Tigers be heard far and wide. Cheering for the success of college teams is great, but how extra great to cheer for students with the courage to look out for themselves and others on a sometimes difficult journey through life. Mental illness is a diagnosis, not a personal character failing. It needn’t be confronted alone.

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