NIU athletes team up to take on a ‘hidden opponent’

Students found local chapter of mental health support group


Courtesy of Madison Mathews

The official graphic for the NIU chapter of The Hidden Opponent.

Struggles with mental health impact millions of people. The wide-reaching community of student-athletes is no different. To combat mental health struggles, a trio of Huskie softball players have launched a chapter of The Hidden Opponent at NIU.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma around student-athlete mental health because we’re (student-athletes) grown up to be these tough people, get through it all,” sophomore utility player Avery Carnahan said.

About THO

The Hidden Opponent is a non-profit advocacy organization that strives to raise awareness for the mental health of student-athletes. The organization has been developed by former student-athletes and mental health professionals.

THO was founded in 2019 by Victoria Garrick, a former student-athlete who was a four-year starter on the University of Southern California Trojans women’s volleyball team. The organization was named after a TEDx Talk Garrick held in 2017.

THO comes to NIU

Three sophomores from NIU softball are responsible for The Hidden Opponent’s arrival at NIU: Carnahan, utility player Madison Mathews and midfielder/outfielder Kacie Quick.

The trio conceived the idea this past spring after the suicide of Lauren Bernett, a catcher for the softball team at James Madison University.

“It really hurt us personally because, obviously, we’re softball players,” Carnahan said. “There have been a lot of suicides in the past couple of years. We wanted to bring advocacy for mental health here at NIU because we really didn’t have a lot of resources. What better way than to start something ourselves?”

Mathews was instrumental to the establishment of NIU’s THO chapter. She was the first to reach out to Dr. Shyann Beach, NIU’s new director of athletics counseling, about becoming an adviser for the chapter.

“At the time, I had heard nothing about it,” Beach said. “I did some research on my own and recognized that it’s (THO) something really valuable for student-athletes.”

Being a student-athlete is no walk in the park

Beach said that while there are many privileges and advantages of being a student-athlete, the downsides of having that status are not often discussed.

“Time demands are significant. And then you have so many pressures coming your way,” Beach said. “You have pressure from your coaches, pressure from your teammates.”

Beach continued that student-athletes often have self-imposed expectations and pressures that often come with the internal saying of “I need to succeed.”

“Constant competition and constant evaluation all of the time from that environment. And then you’re missing class on top of that,” Beach said. “You don’t have time to be a person on top of that.”

Carnahan added that student-athletes often don’t leave time for themselves to consider their own mental health due to their busy schedules.

“There are a lot of times where we’re not home for 12,13 hours a day and don’t really have time to sit down and think about these things,” Carnahan said.

We wanted to bring advocacy for mental health here at NIU because we really didn’t have a lot of resources. What better way than to start something ourselves?””

— Sophomore utility player Avery Carnahan

The national community of student-athletes has seen some of the worst results of deteriorating mental health. Two notable cases of mental health decline are the suicides of Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski in Jan. 2018 and Stanford University goalkeeper Katie Meyer this past March.

NIU’s latest implementations of mental health resources come during a time when concerns of mental health are on the rise, according to a fall 2021 study by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The study reported that levels of anxiety and depression amongst surveyed student-athletes continue to be 1.5 to 2 times higher than there were before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Setting up the structure

The chapter is currently developing a format that will help its members enter the meetings feeling comfortable and supported.

“We’re going to start with a little bit of personal stories to show our personal struggles to be vulnerable at first,” Mathews said. “Hopefully, our vulnerability will make people realize that they’re not alone.”

Meetings will be held once a month, and a new topic will be introduced every month. The chapter is entirely student-led. Beach said she will provide support by supplying resources, giving presentations and using connections from her therapist network to bring in others to present on various topics.

The topics discussed at the meetings include the transition from high school to college, anxiety, depression and body image. Attendees will be allowed to vote for the topics that interest them the most.

While THO is specifically designed for the student-athlete community, the rest of the NIU community can support the group’s efforts by helping to break down the stigma against mental health struggles. The chapter plans to post campus resources for mental health on its various social platform. These resources will be accessible to regular students as well.

Ahead of the chapter’s official debut, the prominent hope is that the student-athlete community at NIU can be benefited by the group’s support and create a culture that is accepting of mental struggles.

“My hope would be that mental health is more openly talked about,” Beach said. “That it’s accepted to say ‘I’m not OK’ and that students know that there’s support around the times when they feel that way.”

Carnahan hopes that at least one person can benefit from the efforts of the NIU chapter of The Hidden Opponent.

The first meeting for NIU’s chapter of The Hidden Opponent will be held at 8 p.m. on Oct. 12 in the Student Athlete Academic Support Services classroom located in the Yordon Center on the west side of campus. The meeting will be about anxiety and reducing stress. More information will be made available on the chapter’s Instagram page.

“Just show up on Wednesday the 12th and we’re gonna welcome you with open arms,” Mathews said. “We’re excited to see people there.”