Kally Fayhee takes the stage at SXsports

SXSW has always brought innovators to their stages to speak about the most pressing issues and trends. This year, our very own Kally Fayhee will take the stage on a SXsports panel titled, “Mental Health in Sports: The Next Barrier to Break?” 

Professional and college athletes are expected to be in peak physical condition through their careers, but when discussing. the health of athletes, mental health rarely enters the conversation. Reflecting on her time at University of Michigan and starting support group, Athletes Connected, Kally will shed light on her work to end the stigma athletes face around seeking treatment. Leading up to her talk, we decided to sit down to ask Kally about her experience and excitement leading up to SXSW.

Q: You were a college athlete at University of Michigan. Tell us a little about your experience being on the Women’s Swim Team?  

A: My experience at the University of Michigan is one that I will always cherish. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by teammates, coaches and a supportive staff that pushed me to be a better athlete. One of my favorite memories at Michigan was singing the Victors (our fight song) every Saturday under the last championship banner. It was a reminder of all of those who came before you and the work that still needed to be done — it was a wonderful display of teamwork and tradition.

Q: You started a group called Athletes Connected which helps college athletes deal with a variety of mental health issues. How did that come about?

A: Athletes Connected began in 2013 in effort to increase awareness of mental health issues among student athletes. Many student athletes are dealing with issues behind the scenes, and Athletes Connected aims to reduce the stigma of help-seeking and promote positive coping skills.

There was a pilot program first, that featured three key elements: a video series that encouraged those suffering to ask for assistance, informational presentations for coaches and student athletes, and casual drop-in support groups. These first efforts required funding, which was graciously provided to us from an NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice grant. It was a unique collaboration between the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Depression Center and Athletic Department that made this all happen.

While the grant for the program concluded in January 2014, the demand from student athletes was prevalent. Not only were student athletes and coaches at the University of Michigan supportive of Athletes Connected, but we started getting calls from students at other universities wanting to implement similar programs. Ultimately, it came down to donor help to keep the program in full swing at the University of Michigan campus. both at the University of Michigan and other Universities continued and with donor help, Athletes Connected continued the full program on the University of Michigan campus.

Q: What are some common misunderstandings about athletes and mental health?

A: The phrase ‘mental health’ in itself is misunderstood. ‘Mental’ is such a loaded word in society today, making it difficult for student athletes (or anyone for that matter), to feel comfortable reaching out or categorizing themselves in that way.  

When I first started with the project, what I found most interesting was the misunderstanding and true lack of education around mental health. With student athletes, I believe these misunderstandings are hyper-prevalent because of the type of personality athletes possess—a personality that will push so far to achieve a goal and someone that, from a young age, has learned that weakness is typically followed by failure. Your only answer is to tough it out and try harder.

A person with mental health issues that “toughs it out” creates isolation, not triumph. Take a leg injury for example—if a student athlete tears a ligament in their foot, they will seek out a trainer, start rehab, and over time the ligament gets better. In this scenario, the student is not seen as weak, they are seen as a true athlete of the sport who wants their body to be in peak condition.

It doesn’t work in that same way if an athlete seeks treatment for a mental issue. Sociaety is simply not educated yet and the brain is still seen as this nebulous thing, not a large muscle that needs to be trained to be in peak condition. Whether it is race anxiety or a clinical diagnosis, mental illness, in today’s culture, is viewed as a weakness. It is a taboo subject and when the trend in sport is to “tough it out” it becomes difficult to foster honest conversations .

The goal right now is to educate and simply facilitate conversations. This is the only way we can begin to break down the current stigmas around mental illness.

Q: What surprised or excited you in starting Athletes Connected?

A: I was surprised by how many student athletes wanted to talk about mental health. During the pilot program, the group at Athletes Connected were able to sit down with nearly every student athlete at the University of Michigan and tell our personal story. We were able to facilitate an honest and open conversation about the daily pressures of student athletes, and the results were amazing. Not only were the students engaged during the conversation, they wanted to share personal experiences and they looked for additional outlets to discuss the daily stressors in their life.

This openness was so important not only because it would give student athletes a competitive advantage in their sport, but because one day these athletes will eventually go on to be more than their student athlete identity—they will go on to have a career, hold office, or maybe even go pro. Beginning the conversation around mental wellness now will eventually help in their transition, setting them up for a more successful future.

Q: You’ve been asked to speak about your experience with Athletes Connected at SXsports this year in Austin. Tell us about that—what will the main discussion be around; who will join you on stage?

A: The session at SXSW is titled Mental Health in Sports: The Next Barrier to Break?  We’ll be talking about the barriers athletes face when seeking help for mental illness. The session is facilitated by a writer from Arizona Sun, and I’ll be joined by National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) Executive Bahai Van Pelt and former Tennessee Titans linebacker Gerald McRath.

It is a wonderful platform to have conversations about a subject I’m so passionate about. By beginning to have events like these and working to break down stigmas, the hope is that athletes of all kinds begin to feel open in discussing their mental health. And, in the long term, we want to reach future athletes and children, so they feel comfortable speaking about their mental health.  

Q: Give us an update on Athletes Connected. Is it still providing support for athletes; has it grown?

A: Athletes Connected is still up and running! There is a wonderful and dedicated team back in Ann Arbor, Michigan who still host seminars and facilitate drop in sessions. This team is also conducting research to gain an understanding of student athletes day-to-day lives, their pressures and the barriers to help-seeking.

Q: Clearly you’ve moved on from your college days, but how have you applied lessons you may have learned from swimming and/or founding Athletes Connected to your professional life?

Where do I begin! Michigan taught me how to be humble and how to truly work for a team. I was fortunate to lead the team as a captain my senior year, and the lessons I learned during that year were ones that I continue to draw upon today. The idea that everyone will not have the same view points or even think in the same way as you, is a lesson that I not only transferred into the business world but also drew upon while talking to student athletes in our  Athletes Connected sessions. It is always easy to forget that each person is dealing with something, and even if you can’t understand it, you owe them the time, respect and courtesy to try.

Kally Fayhee is Business Development Manager at VSA Partners, and will be speaking at SXsports on Sunday, March 13th 12:30-1:30pm. Learn more about this panel here