Caleb Kelly never thought he’d be in this situation.
In 2016, Kelly was a five-star recruit and one of the top players in the state of California. He said he came into Oklahoma expecting to play football for three years and then go to the NFL.
Nearly three years later, in the midst of a tumultuous 2018 season where he lost his starting position and had inconsistent playing time, the linebacker — now going into his senior season — said there were times when he found himself crying alone in his bedroom.
His story represents an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in the sports world: mental health.
Kelly told his mental health story Thursday night at “The Right Conversation,” an event presented by OU Health Services, OU Athletics and the nonprofit Everyone Has a Story. Kelly and five other people held a panel talking about the issue of athletes’ mental health. The panel — which also included softball player Nicole Mendes, Detroit Pistons shooting guard Langston Galloway, Detroit Pistons assistant coach JD Dubois, former UCLA basketball player and marriage therapist Nina Westbrook, marriage and family therapist Dr. Corey Yeager and Director of OU Student-Athlete Experience Teresa Turner — discussed the stigma of mental health in sports, how to combat it and ways to move the conversation forward.
The topic the panelists came back to throughout the panel was the stigma around discussing mental health. Each of them has experienced it throughout their lives, and they all agreed the progress could not be made until that stigma was broken.
“Last year, I went through my first ever mental health issue, and at first I just noticed something was wrong,” Mendes said. “It kind of got to the point where I felt something was really wrong, it wasn’t going away and I needed to deal with it. But I was really ashamed and embarrassed, but I didn’t know why.
"I was scared.”
Mendes’ story is not uncommon. People feel the same way she felt all the time, yet there is still a notion in the athletic community that those feelings are invalid. Dr. Yeager called this the “warrior mentality.” He said that type of mindset often conflicts with seeking help and trying to improve an athlete’s mental health.
“The warrior mentality is basically invincibility,” Kelly said. “We have to have that mindset in all sports. For us football players at the University of Oklahoma, we’re supposed to be winning national championships every year, the Big 12 (Championship) is a given for us every year. So to have that pressure on us ... Whatever’s going on with our lives or back home, we’re just supposed to win games.”
The panel said breaking the stigma starts with normalizing conversations around mental health. They all had ways of doing that — Mendes suggested talking to your loved ones, Westbrook said adopting a glass-half-full mindset is effective and they all agreed therapy is valuable.
At Oklahoma, the athletic department takes extra care with their student athletes’ mental health. In 2004, OU Athletics introduced Psychological Resources for OU Student Athletes, also called PROS. PROS is staffed by medical health professionals that aim to help student athletes achieve academic, athletic and mental health success.
Turner said that PROS is unique because most universities don’t have resources devoted to improving the mental health of their student athletes. Both Kelly and Mendes said that the PROS staff has been invaluable in helping the mental health of student-athletes across campus.
“Sometimes I (work with to PROS) because I’m just in need of someone to talk to and kind of just vent,” Mendes said. “But sometimes I go through issues because I’m a human, just like anyone else. They’re really helpful with talking to me about how to get through it and how to manage my mental health on my own, not just by going in and seeing them.”
PROS is effective for student-athletes, but at a certain point, they will move on from the university and not have access to the resources they provide. Turner and the rest of the PROS staff aim to help student-athletes be ready to face mental health challenges once they leave Oklahoma.
“I think once you make (talking about mental health) normal for students, they’re going to be better prepared to seek help once they do leave,” Turner said. “We’ve made it so that it’s not taboo to talk about. So I think it makes it easier when students leave here.
Turner, PROS and the rest of OU Athletics have begun to make progress on mental health so far. Mendes and Kelly both said they have seen the conversation around mental health evolve and progress at the university in their time as student-athletes.
“As a freshman, we didn’t have PROS come and talk to us every week and things like that,” Kelly said. “I think that’s something that’s shown tremendous growth in just how our university is … Just knowing that people are there is something that’s really positive for us.”