Spartans focus on student-athlete mental health

EAST LANSING — Returning to Michigan State earlier this year was an opportunity Ashton Henderson couldn’t turn down. Yes, the chance to work for his alma mater was part of the reason for his enthusiasm. But there was one specific aspect of his role — he’s MSU’s associate executive director of athletics for championship resources — that appealed to him the most.

He is said to be the main promoter of the mental health of student-athletes.

Mental health is a cause that drives Henderson on a daily basis.

A four-year winner for MSU’s soccer team from 2006 to 2009, Henderson has family members who have struggled with mental health issues. And he saw how it affected other people who have played for MSU before.

“Seeing and being around former Spartans and teammates who are still struggling with mental health barriers in their lives?” said Henderson. “These are things that I didn’t necessarily know about.”

He doesn’t have to go it alone.

Michigan State has created two full-time positions dedicated solely to exercise: Molly McQueary and Jeff Williams both hold the title of Director of Student-Athlete Wellness. Williams is a licensed clinical social worker; McQueary focuses on mental performance.

A Michigan native, Williams was excited to return to his home state in the new role.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It just shows that Alan Haller (MSU athletic director) and the administration are putting their words into practice. As athletic director, one of the first things Haller said he would do was throw a mental health program – and he came on So it means a lot to me as a mental health care provider to see that we’re able to provide support where it’s needed.

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Williams, who started Aug. 1, sees athletes “for a range of things,” from stress to a potentially more serious diagnosis.

“It could be stress related to academics, stress related to performance in their sport or even within their family dynamics,” he said. “Or if there were any issues they had growing up that might impact their ability as a student-athlete, they can come to me and be able to work on those things.”

McQueary’s position, dedicated to mental performance, also spans the spectrum of emotions a student-athlete may face in college.

“This job helps them talk about themselves in a positive way, empower coaches and train them to talk to a Gen Z student-athlete rather than coaching someone who is Gen X or Gen Y – these different types of challenges that are there,” Henderson says. “Ultimately, it helps you maximize your peak performance. Like things you should be thinking about: what are your routines? How is your sleep hygiene? What is your family history? He tries to help you navigate these things.”

Compared to their predecessors, Gen Zers — those born between 1995 and 2010 — feel more comfortable talking openly about their mental health. Which relieves Williams. And also facilitates his daily work.

“As a society, I think we’ve moved on to a better place, where we’ve broken the negative stigma,” he said. “A lot of people have spoken out and talked about their mental health and the benefits of help. The younger generation are open to talking. There are times when it can be difficult for them to come in and accept that they can needing to talk to someone. But overall I would say this generation is in a much better place. They are more open to using mental health services.

Michigan State football bettor Greg Montgomery in 1985. He died by suicide in August 2020.

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These words delight Margot Moran. Her older brother, Greg Montgomery, committed suicide two years ago. An All-American punter during his time at MSU in the 1980s, Montgomery championed the importance of mental health for years before his death.

That his alma mater now places such importance on it, his sister said, would make him proud.

“I think it’s important for parents to watch this because kids these days tend to be able to ask for help or talk about their mental state,” Moran said. “Adults sometimes need to be reminded that this is very serious and we need to talk about these things. I’m just glad the kids feel better to be able to ask for help and check in on their sanity. Although it there are many who do, there are still many who do not, there is still so much work to be done.

Henderson wishes these services were more readily available when he was still in college.

“I was always taught to be mentally strong, you know? Never show signs of weakness, not just in sports, but at home,” he said. “So when there were times when I wanted to cry or let out that emotion, I couldn’t. I just didn’t think that was the appropriate thing, because that wasn’t what I was told. ‘had said.

“So I think with student-athletes these days, having family members who are schizophrenic, who are bipolar, who deal with these challenges and mental illnesses every day, how can we better learn and supporting them is very important.”

In this file photo, Michigan State Athletic Director Alan Haller celebrates after defeating Michigan on October 30, 2021 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.  Since becoming an DA, Haller has focused on the mental health and well-being of student-athletes.

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MSU also does not keep the message internally. In its final game, the football team wore helmet stickers highlighting the organization named in Montgomery’s honor; his opponent, Minnesota, did the same. This week, the Spartans will join another mental health initiative in their Maryland contest. This is the Terrapins’ “Mental Health Awareness Game”. Both MSU and Maryland will sport green ribbons on their helmets, as green is the color of mental health awareness.

“Maryland asked us to participate, and we graciously agreed,” Henderson said. “You see more of these organic mental health initiatives throughout the (Big Ten) conference. And they’re not just about putting on decals, but they actually have a call to action, which I appreciate .”

There is also a nutritional component to all of this.

Previously, student-athletes had a station at Jenison Field House where they could grab snacks on the go. Now, each team has a nutritionist specific to their sport.

“Football players eat differently than male golfers. It’s just nature,” Haller said. “What I’ve seen over the past two years is that nutrition helps performance.”

Tailoring diets to each sport, Haller said, is the least his department can do.

“It’s a bare minimum of equity,” he said. “Our student-athletes should all be able to eat the same – not the same food, but ‘eat the same’ when it comes to their nutrition in their sport.”

Henderson said it was just the beginning. Going forward, the MSU Athletic Department will continue to identify and dedicate resources to improve the health of student-athletes, on and off the field. Over the next three to five years, Henderson expects there will be more than just Williams and McQueary working in the department.

He wants an entire division dedicated strictly to mental health and wellness.

“I will ask for the moon, and I will continue to ask for it, because it is important,” he said. “Right now, when you think about it, we have two full-time positions. Can we go from two to five? And from five to seven? And then we’ll go from there.

Contact Ryan Black at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RyanABlack.

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