Fighting the Hidden Opponent

By Bailey Houlihan

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This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

There has always been this stigma surrounding athletes when it comes to mental health—as if they were robots without feelings or something.

No, they aren’t robots.

They’re living, breathing human beings.

We’re living, breathing human beings.

My objective with the non-profit organization, The Hidden Opponent, is to bring awareness to the fact that athletes aren’t okay sometimes. You should never judge a book by its cover because you never know what might be going on beneath the surface.

And I can speak to that from my own experience.

About two years ago, my friend and teammate, Beth Dunlap, passed away after getting suddenly hit by a car in February 2019. Shortly after in January 2020, my friend and teammate, Addy Karmik, attempted suicide. There was a lot of anxiety and depression involved with Addy’s mental health, but Beth’s passing anniversary along with undergoing depression was the breaking point for her.

And people were shocked.

It was just something no one expected to happen to someone like her because she hid it so well. Suicide is a heavy subject with it being so sudden and someone could be gone the next day. But no one is immune to depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues for that matter. Therefore, it is important to provide for yourself sooner rather than later. 

Addy is now using her story to encourage others to speak up when they’re not okay.

I hope to do the same with mine.

A long ways from home

I’ve dealt with my own varying degrees of anxiety and sadness. There was even a point when I went to my parents for help. But once they suggested therapy, I was out.

“Hmm, no—I’m good,” I said.

Things are different when you’re in high school, you know? I just felt like people might look down on me if they found out I was going to therapy, and no one wants that at that age.

But things obviously changed when I went off to college.

Being from Illinois, I’m a pretty long ways from home, and it was a hard adjustment not seeing my family.

And COVID didn’t make it any easier.

I was basically just trapped in my room all day long without really seeing and talking to anyone outside of roommates and the volleyball team. It was just hard on me, you know?

At the time, I just felt like I needed someone to talk to and help me mentally.

You see, when you’re a student-athlete and catch COVID, people look at you differently, and in some cases, they might even start to judge you.

And then, it’s always the questions.

“Who were you around?”
“How could you let that happen?”
“Where were you?”

It just got really hard to manage everything, especially with my emotions constantly coming into play. So, I finally decided to see a therapist, and I’ve been going now ever since.

I had to be willing to advocate for myself before I started advocating for anyone else.

Never judge a book by its cover

My own experiences with mental health gave me the urge to raise awareness. But the one thing that really empowered those feelings was when I first saw a TED Talk featuring The Hidden Opponent founder, Victoria Garrick.

Honestly, I sat there and probably watched the whole thing like three times.

It was just crazy how similar her experiences with mental health were to my own. I jumped at the opportunity to become a campus captain and start up a group at the University of Memphis.

The objective of The Hidden Opponent is to raise awareness of mental health for student-athletes and address the stigmas in sports.

I think the best part is seeing all of these athletes from so many different sports coming together and sharing their stories.

We have a subcommittee that usually meets once a month, and there was this football player that really stood out to me.

He talked about an experience he had with the football team when listening to a speaker advocating for mental health. It’s one thing to just talk about a speech and say it was good, but he said people were actually breaking down and crying because of how much it meant to them.

You often get the stereotypes of football players just being tough guys, but like every other student-athlete, they go through things, too. It was mind-blowing to see how that one discussion impacted that whole team.

It really brought everything full-circle as to why we’re doing what we’re doing.

It just got really hard to manage everything, especially with my emotions constantly coming into play. So, I finally decided to see a therapist, and I've been going now ever since. I had to be willing to advocate for myself before I started advocating for anyone else.

It’s okay not to be okay

Now that I’ve gotten more involved with The Hidden Opponent and mental health advocacy, I’d love to do something in the future with this.

It’s so awesome to have a voice with all of this stuff for the school and the American Athletic Conference. As of right now, no one else in my conference is a part of The Hidden Opponent.

I really hope that changes.

Advocacy isn’t just important in college, but I believe it’s even more important once student-athletes graduate. There are so many scenarios where student-athletes become lost once their playing careers end. That transition from being an athlete to normal adult life is really tough for some.

So, I would love an opportunity to work with both the athletes still in school and the graduates attempting to transition to life after sports.

It’s so important for people to realize that it’s okay not to be okay.

You turn on the television or even read in the news about some of these larger-than-life athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles opening up about their own mental health struggles.

All of the gold medals in the world won’t change the fact that they’re just people at the end of the day.

They’re human beings, not robots.

And the hidden opponent doesn’t discriminate.

It never does.