Monday, August 3, 2020

Former BYU athletes hope mental health issues move from stigma to spotlight

It’s Tuesday afternoon. Tanner Mangum sits in a downtown Salt Lake City office recording and editing his podcast, “Maybe the Best of Things: A Podcast with Tanner Mangum,” where he discusses mental health. 

A few years ago, he would not have pictured himself doing this — especially as a hobby — but after discovering through personal experience the importance of mental healthMangum decided to create a podcast where he and others could share their stories in an effort to help society understand mental illness.

Mangum’s mental health journey began during a football game. It was fourth down with one second left on the clock and the Cougars were behind 28-27. BYU’s starting quarterback, Taysom Hill, was out with a season-ending injury. Hopes for BYU coming home with a win were low, but freshman quarterback Mangum wasn’t ready to give up yet on the first game of his college career. 

At the last second, Mangum threw a 42-yard Hail Mary. The ball flew to the end zone, Mitch Mathews made the catch and the Cougars brought home a win for their first game of the 2015 season.

Mangum threw a second game-winning Hail Mary one week later. The Cougars were 2-0 for the season, and the quarterback found himself standing in the national spotlight. 

Ari Davis
Tanner Mangum after the 2015 football game that changed his life. (Ari Davis)

Mangum had returned from his Latter-day Saint mission merely three months prior to the two plays that jump-started his college football career. He had to make the difficult transition from serving as a missionary to playing college football with the pressure of the entire nation watching. 

He started struggling with anxiety in spring 2016, though he didn’t know it at the time. Many aspects of his life weren’t going according to plan. Mangum became the backup quarterback when Taysom Hill recovered from his injury and went through a break up. He was trying to balance his stressful schedule while also presenting a “perfect” front to the public. His anxiety led to depression. 

Athletes and mental illness

Mangum isn’t the only athlete who has struggled with anxiety and depression. The 2015 NCAA GOALS study found that about 30% of college athletes have experienced mental health issues and felt overwhelmed­­.

College athletes face mental illness at about the same rate as the general student population, according to Tom Golightly, the associate clinical director for BYU Counseling and Psychological Services. Golightly said while the rate is similar, the impact is different. Mental illness affects athletes’ academic and athletic performance. When they don’t perform well athletically, their ability to pay for school is threatened. More than two-thirds of student-athletes would be unable to afford tuition if they quit their sport, according to the 2015 NCAA GOALS Study,

Athletes are less likely to seek help for mental illness

“The national trend is that athletes have a resistance to counseling or therapy, or even medication that general population students don’t always have,” Golightly said.

According to the same study, Division I student-athletes spend an average of 34 hours a week devoted to athletics, 38.5 hours a week devoted to academics and about 40% of Division I student-athletes worry about their ability to keep up with school while in season. Many athletes don’t have time to socialize, relax, visit family or seek help.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is another issue that prevents athletes from seeking help. Athletes are in the spotlight and are expected to be tough, so they may not seek help. Mangum said he experienced these pressures.

“I started to shut down,” Mangum said. “I lost a lot of motivation. I lost my enthusiasm, my passion for life, and then I went into this dark place where I wasn’t feeling like myself. I didn’t want to spend time with friends and family like I usually did. I wanted to isolate myself and be alone in my room and not think about anything else.”

Mangum said he tried to act like everything was fine when he was in public. He didn’t want anyone to know he was struggling because males, especially football players, are supposed to be tough. He thought that talking about it would be seen as a sign of weakness, so he didn’t tell his family or friends. For months, he suffered in silence.

Ari Davis
Tanner Mangum greeting fans during a game in 2016. This was during some of his hardest battles with anxiety and depression. (Ari Davis)

Mangum said many athletes suffer longer than necessary because of their resistance to seeking help. Now, more than ever, athletes like Mangum and his friend Isaiah Kaufusi are speaking up and encouraging others to seek help. 

“It’s OK, you don’t need to hide and dig yourself into this hole,” Kaufusi said. “It’s OK to be vulnerable and open. It’s OK to talk to people and get help. I’ve had occasions where you just need somebody to talk to.”

Help is available

Golightly and his team are available to athletes and can treat a variety of mental health obstacles. He said about one in three or four athletes at BYU seeks help at some point in the semester, which is about average for schools with more psychological services dedicated to student-athletes. BYU faculty, advisers and coaches have made an increased effort to make BYU a safe place to discuss mental health.

“They’re treatable conditions,” Golightly said. “To continue suffering in silence for something that’s treatable is heartbreaking. Getting them (athletes) to that right spot and seeing that treatment can be done, it can be effective.”

Golightly said therapy is not the only thing that can help with mental illness. Sometimes medication is necessary, and sometimes positive social interactions can help. A lifestyle including a healthy diet and good sleep habits can also make a positive impact. Seeking help can aid athletes in finding the right plan of action so they can begin feeling at peace again. 

Supporting someone with mental illness

Sometimes family members or friends can speak up and encourage loved ones to seek help. 

Mangum’s mom confronted him and convinced him to consult a therapist. Through therapy, medication and self-care, he was able to start feeling like himself again, and he learned that having a mental illness doesn’t make you weak. 

Mangum opened up to his sister, Kaufusi and Golightly about his struggles. Kaufusi said he, Mangum and their friend Matt Hadley spent many nights after practices or games talking. 

“I’ve always felt very close to Tanner,” Kaufusi said. “He and I could have very serious conversations. I was really open with him through text. I always reminded him that I was there for him.”

Kaufusi said being aware of the people around you, being empathetic and acting as a catalyst can put people in a position to help.  

Using mental illness as a source of strength

Tanner Mangum now shares his story in an effort to help others. (Emma Johnson)

After six months of treatment, Mangum noticed other people at BYU sharing their stories, so in 2017 he began to share his publicly.

Mangum knew the difference that seeking help could make, so he started using his football platform to spread awareness for mental illness. 

“It was really rewarding and fulfilling to know that by me sharing my story, I can make an impact on someone else’s life,” Mangum said. “By just being real and vulnerable, I could impact someone in a positive way, so it just became this passion of mine. Now I always want to be an advocate and encourage others to get help.”

Fast forward to 2019 — Mangum is a BYU graduate, a husband, father, a podcaster producer, and works at Nike. He said although his battle with mental health was difficult, he is grateful for it because it opened his eyes to others and shaped him into the man he is today. 

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