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No going back: In post-pandemic world, Talladega College set for more mental health challenges for athletes

Talladega College basketball

Talladega College Women's basketball assistant coach Mercedes Gillon-Gant, freshman basketball player Bryanna Williams, Talladega College Athletica Director and Women's Basketball Head Coach Kevin Herod

 Monet Brown was the new girl when she arrived on the Talladega College campus Aug. 14.

The Californian traveled more than 2,400 miles to join the women’s basketball team as a junior. 

Brown spent most of the first two semesters confined to her room because of COVID-19 protocols. Friends weren’t allowed to hang out with her there, not that it was easy to make friends under such strict circumstances.

"You are so isolated," Brown said. "It just causes you to sit there and think about everything you're going through. … There is nothing to distract you."

According to the CDC, the COVID-19 pandemic also increased the need for mental health services, especially among young adults.

COVID-19 cases are dropping statewide. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, there have been only 18 confirmed cases in Talladega County over the last 14 days out of 1,775 people tested.

While good news, an end to the pandemic doesn't mean an end to the upheaval it brought. Masks may become less common, but for many who lost jobs, loved ones or suffered other hardships, this summer won't represent a return to normalcy where their mental health is concerned.

"Are they mentally going to be OK?" asked Michael Brown, Talladega College's director of Wellness, Counseling and ADA Services, referring to students who test positive for COVID-19. "Because we don't know where they're already at anyway. … COVID changed a lot, and a lot of fears came through the surface."

Brown also serves as the co-director for COVID safety on campus, and he suggested that a year of fear and anxiety could funnel into depression.

For the players and coaches, much of their anxiety seemed to revolve around the seemingly endless number of COVID-19 tests required to play.

No one wanted to be known as the player who ruined the season. A single positive test would have likely canceled, or at least postponed, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the regular-season games in one fell swoop. 

Many of the school's athletes traveled a long way to play for Talladega College in the first place. Only three basketball players were in-state recruits, and the baseball team has players from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Panama.

Some come in hopes of eventually playing professionally after college, both inside the US and abroad. While others just want to end their athletic careers with a championship ring on their fingers. Both tasks become even harder if the team winds up sidelined for a significant time.

"Oh, I was afraid to get sick and shut everything down," Monet Brown said, "because I have asthma. So I'm in the high-risk group, one. Two, me being sick on top of that, my season is ruined.

"Yeah, I didn't want to get it. ... It was so scary every time we would get pricked, or we would get tested, or every time we get our temperature checked. I'm still nervous even to this day."

Talladega College athletics director Kevin Herod saw that sort of pressure lead to high anxiety among some athletes.

"Then students, they are watching the news, they are seeing everything. ... It was stuff, depression, you could see people just kind of checked out," said Herod, who is also Brown's coach as the head of the Tornadoes' women's basketball program. "Thinking about things, which is obviously important, thinking about home. Not about what they are here for, and I can understand it."

A Dark Cloud

When the student-athletes returned to campus last August, Herod recognized the faces, but it was clear to him things had changed.

There was a heaviness surrounding most of them. And the grief. Spoken or unspoken, the grief was all too common, as more than a few mourned the death of family or friends.

"I think it was the sheer volume," Herod said. "Usually, maybe one or two that you hear about, and that in itself is a lot. You hear about it, and you're like, wow, that is horrible. But when you see it when it is 20, 30, 40, 50, 60. ... Two people grieving is very different than 40, 50, whatever that number is. It just puts a dark cloud over everything."

On top of all that, many athletes, including the ones in mourning, were likely suffering additional feelings of grief relating to the upheaval created by the pandemic. These feelings are common, according to both the Center for Disease Control and the American Psychological Association.

Monet Brown said it was heartbreaking to see so many members of her new community struggling with loss this season. She knew exactly how they felt.

"I have family members, had a family member pass away from COVID and a family member who got COVID who was close to passing away," Brown said. "It is scary, and it was real, and you could tell a lot of people were going through a lot of different things. It was kind of hard to manage."

The Tornadoes men's and women's teams combined to win 38 of 42 regular-season contests. When they did lose, Herod said it seemed like some players consciously or unconsciously took advantage of the opportunity to mourn the dead.

"So some of these kids will take in (their loss) and say I'm going to use it to honor this person," Herod said. "But, that whole time that is still inside of you and sometimes it doesn't ever really get out and then when it is time to perform and say they don't win then it is just boom. They feel like they let a person down. … You see so much more emotion than what you would normally see."

Michael Brown said that even when students do choose to come forward and seek help after the loss of a family member, many choose to view the bereavement process as something other members of their family need help to navigate.

Brown said there are times when students seek him out, only to deflect with comments like "mom is not doing well." From his viewpoint, he believes their desire to help a hurting family member is sincere and not some subtle way to seek help for themselves.

"Because if I talk to them about (their) grieving process, then we may have to get emotional, and I didn't come here for that," Brown said, explaining the students' mindset. "They would prefer me to tell them something that they can then go tell their family member, 'Do this.'"

With the arrival of summer, many of those athletes will face their losses anew as they return home for perhaps the first time since the death of a loved one.

"Going into next year as an AD, it is going to be a priority for me because again," Herod said, referring to the issue of mental health. "Because kids will go home. Now they actually have to face the reality. It's in their face. Before, Uncle Johnny was there, but when they go home, Uncle Johnny is not there anymore." 

On the Horizon

This wasn't the first year Herod and the rest of the Talladega college coaches have prioritized the mental health of their players. Herod has had a system in place for years to identify students who need help and has offered to walk willing athletes to Michael Brown's office.

"Because there is a stigma to counseling," Herod said. "Oh, I must be crazy, or this is going to make me feel weak. To me, it is actually really strong to be able to face what is going on in your life, and ultimately that is really what we try to get student-athletes to understand."

In the past, Herod and the other coaches have looked for red flags like missing classes or verbal altercations that seemed out of character.

But this season, the conversation around mental health shifted. Coaches were taking note of kids who just seemed to be abnormally quiet or otherwise out of character in more subtle ways.

Herod said the extra emphasis on the players' mental health uncovered issues that existed before most of us could even spell coronavirus. 

"That is what I really see," Herod said. "COVID may be the thing at the forefront, but prior to that, there were other things, this just put them over the edge, but there were other things. You're just like, 'Wow. Didn't know that. I had no idea.'"

That's just one reason Herod said the athletics department would continue to ramp up its mental health services in 2021 and beyond, regardless of what happens with COVID-19.

"It is bigger than the pandemic," Herod said. "I think it's because there are all kinds of things that happen in life, and being able to manage those feelings, those emotions we all go through it. Not just the student-athletes. Coaches, administrators, we all go through it, and I believe that the healthier we are, we can do so much more, we can make so much more of an impact."

Michael Brown hopes society at large chooses to take the same approach as Herod and increase the priority placed on mental health. Perhaps that could be one small good thing to come from such darkness. 

But he isn't convinced of that just yet. The need is especially true among college athletics where anecdotal evidence in published reports by the Washington Post and Forbes suggests mental health professionals at many schools find themselves responsible for 150 to 200 students, if they're lucky.

That could be quite the task considering almost 10 percent of athletes reported feeling so depressed last year they couldn't function, according to results of an NCAA survey taken last August.

"I think it could go either way," Brown said. "Because of human nature, we like to attach to the hot thing in the moment, fad. I never want mental health to be a fad. So if mental health is going to be a fad because of the pandemic, I don't want it. If it is going to be like we are actually going to spotlight, pay heed to, pay attention to, more people are going to get involved in it, (then) let's go for it."

The need is certainly there. Brown said there weren't nearly enough resources available in the mental health field, and the need has only increased since last spring.

To him, real progress would also have mental health take its place in the greater fabric of society. It should become a normal topic of conversation the same way one might discuss music, and it should prompt daily considerations similar to diet and exercise.

Monet Brown can't speak to the changes Talladega College underwent this season, but she can confidently say that she's never seen a school put so much into the mental wellness of its students.

In fact, without those efforts, Monet Brown has no doubts that the last year would have driven her from the basketball courts for good.

"I feel like Coach K (Herod) and our assistants did a great job of checking on us," Monet Brown said. "For me personally, Coach K got me through a lot, got me through a lot to the point where I know I can handle anything."

Sports Writer Tyler Waldrep: 256-299-2133. On Twitter: @tylerwaldrep