It did not take Colin Conroy much time to realize he was depressed during his freshman year at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville. From a lack of desire to play baseball — which had earned him a scholarship — or attend classes, to a decreased appetite to sleeping long hours during the day and at night, the signs were there.
“I didn’t know where to get help,” he recalled three years later. “There really wasn’t anything on campus that I could’ve gone to.”
Now a senior shortstop at Towson, Conroy is trying to help fellow Tigers student-athletes beset by their own mental health issues as a staff member of Own Your Roar, a student-founded and operated organization that has unveiled a mentorship program this fall.
Own Your Roar is the brainchild of senior gymnast Olivia Lubarsky, who launched the initiative shortly after overcoming her own bout with depression as a freshman that she said set her back a year.
“Initially, I created Own Your Roar as an awareness campaign to unite mental health and athletics, and utilize sports as a platform to start the conversation,” the 21-year-old Lubarsky said. “I think that part of the reason it’s been so beneficial and so successful is that it was created by student-athletes for student-athletes. When you get information from coaches and administrators, you take it in a different way. But for someone [your age] to say, ‘Hey, I’m going through it, too,’ is super helpful.”
Lubarsky said the transition from her parents’ home in Santa Monica, California, to the East Coast and the high standards she set for herself contributed to depression that manifested itself in a string of absences from practices, classrooms and dining halls.
“I think that gymnastics, and just the nature of athletics in general, condition you to withhold displaying displays of weakness,” she explained as her reasons for waiting a couple of months before confiding in her mother. “In gymnastics specifically, you’re judged on perfection with every skill and every routine that you do.
“So I started to create those expectations for myself that were unrealistic and perfectionist, and when I didn’t hit those, I was really hard on myself. So my freshman year, coming across the country as this happy, independent and bubbly kid, I kind of stumbled into a pretty dark depression.”
After seeking professional help, Lubarsky was prepared to make her NCAA debut in gymnastics as a sophomore. But that opportunity was wiped out when she ruptured her left Achilles tendon while attempting a round-off double tuck during floor exercise practice.
While recovering from the injury, she realized there were more methods and resources available to heal physical ailments than to address mental health concerns.
“As athletes, we’re in the training room all the time, and we’re taking care of our physical injuries and bodies to be able to excel in practice and in competition,” she said. “But what we lack is the support for the struggles we face internally.”
Partnering with the university’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Lubarsky created Own Your Roar to draw attention to the importance of mental health. A study published Sept. 6, 2018, in the online journal Depression and Anxiety revealed that over 20% of more than 67,000 students surveyed admitted to having suicidal thoughts or attempted to kill themselves. A University of Washington study discovered that 477 of 500,000 NCAA student-athletes committed suicide between 2003 and 2013 — a yearly average of about 48 deaths.
Within Own Your Roar’s first year, Lubarsky filmed a promotional video with the athletic department’s digital media team, several sports featured games and meets dedicated to mental health awareness, and the campaign hosted a relaxation night before finals for athletes to unwind by participating in yoga and art therapy.
This fall, Own Your Roar has implemented a mentorship program in which older athletes are paired with younger athletes to help them transition to the rigors of the institution’s academic and athletic standards. Junior golfer Derek Gold, who endured what he called “fear of the unknown” while recovering from four operations in a 16-month period spanning his senior year at River Hill and his freshman year at Towson, is mentoring a freshman on the swimming and diving team.
“When you look around the country at most schools in general but specifically Division I, they don’t really have programs like this,” Gold said. “To have something here where we can come together and fight this issue is pretty special.”
Senior swimmer Kalyn Fetter, who as a sophomore dealt with the pain of a childhood friend committing suicide, said she has been heartened by the 80 athletes who joined the mentorship campaign.
“We’re one school,” she said. “So we should be a tight-knit community and we should be supporting each other across the board. … It’s rewarding to see people open up more and take on leadership roles. It’s rewarding to see how much momentum it has built.”
The desire for mental health support groups on college campuses is beginning to spread. James Madison launched “Dukes Let’s Talk,” and Lubarsky helped UCLA gymnast Anna Glenn start “Bruin Brave” on her campus.
Lubarsky, a business administration major minoring in psychology who aspires to work with legislative bodies in addressing mental health, said she has been awed by Own Your Roar’s growth.
“I constantly have emails from student-athletes all over the country just saying, ‘I want to start something similar. How did you do it? Do you have tips? What did you run into? What events or ideas do you have? How can I implement them?’ ” she said. “One of the best things is that it’s acknowledging that so many NCAA institutions struggle with increasing mental health resources for student-athletes due to financial barriers.
“But what Own Your Roar does specifically with this mentorship program is, you kind of know you have your teammates behind you, but even with me, it was hard to tell my mom. So maybe having a mentor whose job was to just check in with me a little bit more often, then I wouldn’t have isolated myself so much. That’s kind of the basis.”
Conroy said he is back to his usual self after leaving Northwest Missouri State to return home to Anaheim, California, and resume weekly counseling sessions with a psychologist. Even though Own Your Roar was not available to him then, he is grateful others can access it.
“This gives athletes an outlet if they are going through something,” he said. “Most places end up implementing something like this after something happens. We’re trying to do this to prevent something like that.”